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Satirizing the nuclear family in the comic art of Liv Strömquist

By Kristy Beers Fägersten, Anna Nordenstam, and Margareta Wallin Wictorin,

Introduction

Swedish comics artist Liv Strömquist debuted in 2005 with Hundra procent fett (“One hundred percent fat”) and has since published a total of eight comics albums, the latest of which, Inne i spegelsalen (“Inside the hall of mirrors”), was issued in 2021. Strömquist’s award-winning works have been translated into such languages as Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish, resulting in both national and international acclaim. Her original comic art has been featured in an array of exhibitions, most notably in the celebrated but also controversial installation, The Night Garden, in Stockholm’s underground.1 In addition to creating comics, Strömquist writes for and performs in theatre and other live events, and co-hosts podcasts as well as radio and television programs in the culture sector. 

Strömquist’s body of work— and in particular, her comic art—is characterised by the incorporation of satire, irony, and humour as tools for commenting on feminist politics, activism, and issues of inequality. Her comic art showcases different techniques, such as black and white line drawings, photo collages, as well as traditional, multi-panel comic strips with brightly coloured illustrations. Her single panels, comic strips, and comic stories are often textually dense, featuring commentary in both speech balloons and narrative captions on current events, popular culture, social debates, and political issues. Dialogue and narration are commonly supported by explicit—often footnoted— references to scholarly publications in the fields of philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, and gender studies, among others. Strömquist’s extended and distinctly pedagogical engagement with gender issues can be compared to “gender studies in the medium of comics” (Stenberg, qtd. in Nordenstam 125). Indeed, due to Strömquist’s scientifically grounded critical approach to her subject matter, her comics are widely recognised as a form of popular education, as explicitly stated by the 2016 conferral of an honorary doctorate from Malmö University:

Liv Strömquist has contributed significantly to scientifically grounded continued education. She has shown that what has historically been viewed as the most private is in fact the foundation of society. Strömquist moves comfortably between sociological and psychological theory and historical events, and scrutinizes our ideas about heterosexual coupledom, romantic love, and the nuclear family (Englund n.p.).

The themes of heterosexual coupledom, romantic love, and the nuclear family were saliently explored in the six-page comics story, Kärnfamiljsprojektet, “The Nuclear Family Project,” first published in the 2008 comics album, Einsteins fru (“Einstein’s wife”) and reprinted ten years later in Einsteins nya fru: samlade serier av Liv Strömquist (“Einstein’s new wife: collected comics by Liv Strömquist”). The fact that this particular comics story was selected for republication speaks to its lingering relevance: the societal construct of the nuclear family continues to be celebrated despite its many problematic aspects. In the November 26th, 2020, episode of one of her co-hosted podcasts2, Strömquist pointed out that “The Nuclear Family Project” represents her reaction to feminist writers who had, at the time of its creation, had incidentally begun to champion the nuclear family with their own endorsements of monogamy, marriage, and motherhood (see also Skagerberg 2016). Strömquist had admired prominent Swedish feminists as Linda Skugge and Nina Björk, but as a younger, single, childless woman, she was sceptical of their promotion of the nuclear family. Ten years after the publication of Einsteins fru, Strömquist herself had experienced both partnership and motherhood. However, the 2018 re-issuing of “The Nuclear Family Project” serves as testimony to her continued commitment to criticizing the ideologies embedded in the discourse of the nuclear family, as confirmed by Strömquist by email. 

The re-publication of “The Nuclear Family Project” in Einsteins nya fru in 2018 predates the emergence of Covid-19, yet foreshadows the domestic inequality that the pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated. The story focuses on the socio-political and historical context of the societal promotion of the nuclear family as an ideal, using satire to critique the associated conservative values which disproportionately serve to burden or disenfranchise women, wives, and mothers. For example, Strömquist indicates in the story that women in Swedish nuclear families perform the majority of unpaid housework and are also largely responsible for childcare, as men take less than one-fifth of available parental leave (Strömquist “Einsteins nya” 117). Strömquist also points out how the nuclear family model is not only more publicly promoted by men, but benefits men disproportionately. The criticisms Strömquist wages against the nuclear family are acutely relevant in light of effects of the ongoing global pandemic: for example, in US-based, heterosexual, dual-income households, mothers have seen their remunerated work hours reduced four to five times more than fathers, exacerbating the gender gap by 20-50% (Collins et al. 101); mothers are four times more likely than men to sacrifice their employment in order to care for their children (Rhubart n.p.); and while fathers claim responsibility for at least half of their children’s home-schooling, only 3% of mothers agree this is true (Miller n.p.). These trends can also be observed internationally: a survey of working parents in the US, UK, Italy, Germany, and France reveals that mothers spent, on average, ten more hours per week than fathers on childcare and household tasks before the pandemic, a disparity that has since risen to on average fifteen more hours per week since its inception (Krentz et al.). Worldwide data confirm that although women already performed more unpaid domestic labour than men in pre-Covid times, the disparity is currently exacerbated, resulting in even more women retreating from the workforce at higher rates than men (US Bureau of Labor) and suffering severe socioeconomical setbacks as a result (UN Women). The nuclear family is particularly susceptible to such pandemic-related disruption (Mazzucchelli et al. 706) which disproportionately affects women, wives, and mothers, and threatens to re-impose the gender stereotypes of the post-World War II era upon such individuals today (UN Women n.p.).

These phenomena encourage us to take a critical look at the idealisation of the nuclear family and, on occasion of its recent republication, to revisit Strömquist’s “The Nuclear Family Project.” In this article, we argue that an analysis of “The Nuclear Family Project” requires a multidisciplinary approach, whereby we apply theory and methodology from the disciplines of art history, linguistics, and literary gender studies so as to account for the story’s visual, textual, and thematic intricacies. 

A multidisciplinary approach to “The Nuclear Family Project”

Within the body of research on feminist Swedish comics, Strömquist’s works hold a prominent position. Strömquist’s practice of engaging with academic research and referencing popular culture, her use of irony and satire, her critiques of neo-liberal society, and her approach to tackling a range of feminist issues have, unsurprisingly, drawn the attention of a growing cadre of comics scholars. Both nationally and internationally, scholarship on Strömquist’s comics has mainly housed the fields of literary studies and comparative literature.3 Anna Nordenstam and Margareta Wallin Wictorin’s 2017 analyses, however, have integrated literary studies, art history, and visual studies to better account for the complexity of multiples themes and artistic strategies in her work. This multidisciplinary approach is similarly warranted for an analysis of “The Nuclear Family Project.”

As a comics story, “The Nuclear Family Project” is, in many aspects, conventional in its use of the affordances of the comics medium: there are both framed and unframed panels containing black and white line drawings, as well as speech balloons and captions. A closer reading, however, reveals that this story, on the one hand, makes use of additional pictorial devices which summon a range of art historical genres, and also invokes textual strategies that instigate pragmatic reasoning. Each of these image and text particularities is deployed with the aim of contextualizing, and thereby critiquing, the modern concept of the nuclear family, particularly with regard to the plight of women, wives, and mothers, and the emerging salience of the child. We begin with an analysis of the portrait-style drawings of nuclear families which can be found in the beginning, middle, and end of the story, followed by an examination of the use of written and gestured quotation marks to highlight key words in the discourse of the nuclear family. We then discuss the Swedish context in relation to “The Nuclear Family Project,” which is drawn and narrated with both satire and irony as overall communicative strategies. 

Family Portraits

“The Nuclear Family Project,” consists of six pages. The first, fourth, and sixth pages show drawings mimicking different kinds of idealized family portraits, according to different image conventions from several eras. The drawings simultaneously invoke and deconstruct the nuclear familial ideal in various ways. Figure 1 features the first portrait, on the very first page, which is a drawing that mimics a group selfie of a family. 

Figure 1. Strömquist, Liv. Einsteins nya fru. Ordfront Galago, 2018, page 114.

On this first page the reader sees a man foregrounded in the frame, while in the background behind him is a woman holding a baby in her arms. This composition invites an interpretation of the trio as father, mother, and child; it is the father-figure who is closest to the reader, occupying most of the picture plane, even breaking the image frame. This character is also active in the picture, apparently taking the selfie with his right arm. In a 2018 study on the uses of photography on Facebook, Visa Barbosa, Serés Seuma, and Soto Merola conclude that an individual appearing accompanied by family members is a persistent way of representing one’s identity by adopting a family role as a parent or part of a couple (728). In this picture, it is also the father-figure who takes the initiative to speak about the nuclear family project. The composition of the picture awards the man a dominant position, while the woman and the baby are rendered subordinate to him by their placement both below and behind the man. In the speech balloon, the man says: “Now about the NUCLEAR FAMILY PROJECT!!” His presentation as the father-figure awards him the traditionally privileged position of patriarch. The woman, who can be interpreted as the mother of the child, responds, Tjohoo!!, an expression of enthusiasm comparable to “Hooray!” According to Western image conventions, especially in advertisements, women are expected to smile affirmatively (Fagerström 56). At first glance, the mother in Figure 1 is performing this image. Her response can thus be interpreted as a sincere endorsement of the father’s proposal. There is, however, a stiffness to the woman’s smile that may reflect acquiescence, or it can also frame her response as sarcasm, representing tempered enthusiasm for an ideal that will soon be revealed as disadvantageous to wives and mothers. A less ambiguous sign of resistance to the idea of the nuclear family project is expressed by the baby, whose thought balloon, Fan vad tråkigt!! means “Damn how boring!!” — a comment rendered satirical by virtue of its form and propositional content, both of which are incongruent with the verbal skills of an infant. Furthermore, the baby is neither looking at the beholder nor at either of the parents; this disengagement from the triad can be seen as an indexical sign of discontent with or disinterest in the idea of participating in the nuclear family, suggesting its irrelevance to this future generation.

 The fourth page of the comics story (Figure 2), features a full-page drawing which replicates a 19th century photo portrait of, judging by their clothing, a bourgeois family (cf. Söderlind, 234). Richard Brilliant, writing about portraiture in Western art, claims that there is a “longstanding portrait tradition of representing the family as a cohesive group, led by a dominant male” (92). Based on studies of portraits across a variety of artistic techniques, Brilliant has found that the history of portraiture comprises a gallery of poses, types, and styles which together codify the assumptions and expectations of society (92). Strömquist’s family portrait illustrations mimic such photographic portraits and tropes. Like other image types, photographs often follow image conventions based on societal power structures. Graham Clarke argues that:

[…] at every level the photograph involves a saturated ideological context. Full of meanings, it is a dense text in which is written the terms of reference by which an ideology both constructs meaning and reflects that meaning as a stamp of power and authority. (28)

Figure 2. Strömquist, Liv. Einsteins nya fru. Ordfront Galago, 2018, page 117.

As such, images should be read as part of a practice of signification which reflects the codes and beliefs of the surrounding culture as a whole. From a feminist perspective, it is important to analyse and interpret images according to power structures, as well as to search for signs of defiance and deconstruction of the same. In Strömquist’s drawings of mimicked photographic family portraits, selfies, or other pictorial compositions, it is possible to discern both signs of power that the author has copied, as well as additional signs of defiance. 

The full page image in Figure 2 mimics a 19th century photographic portrait of a white, Western bourgeois family. The design of the man’s suit and the fashionably high waist of the woman’s full-length dress reflects early 19th century fashion. The children are similarly dressed as ideal bourgeois offspring; that the boys are clad in sailor outfits calls to mind typical young male fashion of the time, inspired by Prince Albert Edward of the United Kingdom, who was portrayed in a sailor suit in an 1846 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–73). The members of the family are all drawn in the style of cut-out paper dolls.

Art historian Carol Duncan has described the idealization of the mother at the time of the French revolution and notes that, during this second half of the eighteenth century in France, there was an increase in commissions of family portraits showing marital love and familial harmony,  expressed in scenes of women surrounded by playing, hugging, and doting children, accompanied by a loving husband (579). What was new was the promotion of the mother and the father as ecstatically happy simply by virtue of being husband and wife, as well as parents (574, 579). The large family ideal of the aristocracy, where both men and women could have lovers, was exchanged for the smaller bourgeois family where the wife and mother performed her ideal virtue, i.e., the caring nurturer, while the man returned home to his loving family after work.

This family ideal, which assigned stereotypical gender roles to both adults and children, also gained ground in Sweden, and gradually came to characterise the whole constructed image of society, spanning from the wealthy elite to rural farmers and the working class (Blom & Haavet 27, Göransson 100). Consequently, the concept of the family, based on marital love and gender roles, became a private economic unit. Likewise, it was seen as a sign of wealth to have the mother at home instead of in the work force. This domestic ideal was reflected in family portraits, first in paintings, but from the middle of the nineteenth century onward, also in photography. According to Shearer West, “the importance of family hierarchy, with the father visually representing the dominant patriarch, remained prevalent in European portraiture until the nineteenth century” (110). The practice of commissioning photographic portraits of the family and displaying them at home was an important part of the bourgeois culture, and when the price for such works decreased, the practice was even adopted by less well-off families (Petersen 28–29). Photographic family portraits were often taken at ceremonial family meetings, serving to both document the gathering as well as maintain the family bond by, in effect, perpetually recreating the gathering through the portrait. This cohesive function of the photographic family portrait remained relevant for Swedish families far into the 20th century (Londos 207).  

The overlapping family members of Figure 2 also reflects compositional cohesion, with the man/husband/father and the children standing on all sides of the woman/wife/mother, who is seated and occupies the central position of the portrait. In contrast to the raised hands of the man and children, the woman’s hand rests on the girl’s head, a gesture featured in traditional royal family portraits to indicate the succession order (Söderlind 128). According to the accompanying texts, however, the gesture may be construed as passing on a less-than-desirable fate. The caption at the top of the page states: 

Nowadays, most people base their choice of whom they will build a nuclear family with on the feeling of sexual attraction to that person. The idea of the nuclear family project is that a couple will be “in love” their whole life, continue to be sexually attracted to each other, want to pursue the same life projects, want to live together their whole life, etc etc. (Strömquist, “Einsteins nya fru”, 117)  

A series of speech balloons provides commentary on this caption that criticizes and deconstructs this archetype. First, the father figure says, “Surprise, surprise, this doesn’t work very often!!!” and “But that these extremely strange requirements for how one’s life shall be lived often go wrong is considered a horrible failure!!!” Even the children, in various speech balloons, observe that, “It’s often rather boring to live in a nuclear family!!”, “It’s extra boring for women to live in nuclear families since they do 87% of the unpaid household labour!”, and “And men take only 18% of paternity leave!!” The members of the family do not look at each other in this portrait, but rather face and direct their speech to the audience, providing commentary on a dissatisfactory situation that is not immediately evident in the polished portraiture. The ideal of the nuclear family, expressed visually by mimicking a 19th century portrait of an ideal family, is further called into question by the stiffness and artificiality of the paper doll-like figures in the portrait, as well as contested by the text. The resulting irony ultimately serves to deconstruct such an ideal. Throughout her comic art, Strömquist often makes references to other cultural artifacts, such as film, television, popular music, etc. (Nordenstam 123). Likewise, this particular image can be seen as Strömquist providing an intertextual reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), a film which chronicles events in the lives of the titular children of a wealthy family in early 1900s Uppsala, Sweden. At various family gatherings depicted in the movie, the children are wearing similar sailor suits and dresses. The appropriation of this style in this image of the comics story undeniably invokes the film, which has distinguished itself for exposing serious domestic problems, such as infidelity, alcoholism, and violence, that can belie the polished family surface. 

The drawing on the last page of this comics story (Figure 3) also mimics a traditional family portrait. Here, the pictorial composition, fashion, and hairstyles situate the portrait and its subjects in the 1970s. The form, poses, and the positioning of the figures follow traditional family portrait conventions, and the group is cohesive, emphasized by their enclosure in a circular frame and black and white stripes emanating from a central point. In contrast to the portrait in Figure 2, however, it is now a man who occupies the centre position, surrounded by three women of apparently various ages. The man appears to be husband, son, and father, with his right arm around what can be assumed to be his wife, his mother standing behind him to the left, and his adult daughter behind him to the right. The man is dressed rather formally in a suit and tie, and he has started to go bald, suggesting middle-age. His facial expression indicates contentedness, with a slight smile and an upwards gaze. The mother figure to the back left bears a Christian cross pendant, is smiling, and directs her gaze towards this man. Similarly, the daughter on the right side of the image is also smiling and, leaning her head to the right, also oriented towards the central male figure. However, in contrast to the mother and daughter, the wife sits below and partly in front of the man. She does not face the man as the others do, but rather stares off, with an unfixed, zombie-like gaze. The added lines under her eyes suggest she is frazzled or fatigued. While the gazes of the man, his mother, and his daughter create a circuit of connectedness, the wife’s outward orientation conveys an exclusion from their seemingly shared happiness. The man’s arm around her shoulders holds her possessively in place, perhaps even propping her up. Mentally, this woman’s focus appears to be elsewhere.

Figure 3. Strömquist, Liv. Einsteins nya fru. Ordfront Galago, 2018, page 119.

The composition of this image highlights the central position of the family father of the late 20th century. The black and white stripes emanating from the interior call to mind radiant sunbeams forming a halo, invoking such circles of light used in representations of ancient Greek or Christian deities, saints, or other holy beings (Stokstad 6). This imbues the family portrait with an aura of “the Holy Family,” centred around the father/patriarch. In the context of a family portrait, the effect is one of hyperbole. The exaggerated ideal renders the image satiric, ultimately serving as a critique against the cult of the nuclear family. Complementing the visual elements on this page is the stylized text that concludes the comics story and emphasises the critique of the practice of idealizing the nuclear family. Here, the Swedish word, SLUT, meaning “The End,” not only indicates that the comics story has come to an end, but can also be considered a suggestion to put an end to the glorification of the nuclear family project.

Air Quoting and Scare Quoting

With regards to the textual content of the comic story, there are several rhetorical strategies to consider, especially within the first few pages. The first page (Figure 1), which can be considered the title page, features one large, framed panel depicting a father and mother figure, each with their own speech balloon, and a baby figure, who is depicted with a thought bubble, presumably representing a pre-verbal stage. On the second page (Figure 4), divided horizontally into three sections, the top section consists of two unframed panels side-by-side, each topped with a caption box. The left panel (panel 2) shows a sole female figure sitting in an armchair watching television; from the side, a speech balloon with jagged lines indicates mediated speech from an unseen figure on the television,. The right panel (panel 3) features a conventional speech bubble coming from the now-visible figure on television, an elderly male who sports a “KD” button, indicating affiliation with Sweden’s conservative Christian Democrat (Kristdemokrater) party. Panel 4, framed, stretches over the width of the bottom-fourth of the page. In this panel, a family of three (father, mother, son) sit on the sofa watching television; in front of the family, a cat faces the reader with a question mark thought bubble. Panel 4 features a caption at the top but no caption box, and a second caption in the lower right corner of the panel, enclosed in a round, jagged form similar to the mediated speech balloon of panel 2. Between the two panels at the top and the one panel at the bottom of the page are three lines of unframed text, the last two of which are in a large, bold font. 

 

Figure 4 (panel 2, 3, 4). Strömquist, Liv. Einsteins nya fru. Ordfront Galago, 2018, page 115.

Already within these first two pages of the comics story, Strömquist has enacted a practice of repetition that achieves intra- and inter-alignment of the textual and visual content, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to the recurring theme of the nuclear family. First, the physical framing of the first and fourth panels, as well as their mother-father-child depictions, serve to bookend the series of four panels as an introduction to the theme. The lack of framing, the caption box, the television, and the mediated speech balloon of panel 2 are all repeated in panel 3, where additional cohesion is achieved by repetition of the captioned text in the mediated speech balloons. The middle of the page is dominated by a question in bold face: “IF the nuclear family is so damn great – then why does it need so much propaganda?” This text is not encased in any caption box but floats in the middle of the page, aligning spatially with panel 1 on the facing page to serve the function of a sub-title, further identifiable as such via the continued capitalization of “IF” and the repetition of the phrase “nuclear family.” Additional continuity is achieved between panels 2, 3, and 4 with the depiction of a television and the mediated speech balloon in panel 2, which spatially complements the jagged-form caption in panel 4. Such continuity reinforces the relationship between the images and the text. 

Significantly, the text of each panel shares the inclusion of capitalized words, which serve to punctuate the speech balloons and captions, establishing discursive cohesion through lexical and conceptual repetition. The capitalized “NUCLEAR FAMILY PROJECT” of panel 1 aligns with “THE FAMILY” in panel 2 and “CHILDREN” in panel 3. In panel 4, the capitalization of Swedish “NJUTA” and “AVNJUTER,” both of which mean ‘(to) enjoy’, capture the reader’s attention to two additional, probing questions posed by Strömquist in her problematization of the nuclear family ideal: “Can’t we just relax and ENJOY our relationship construction and shut up? Why don’t we just sit and ENJOY the nuclear family like an old whiskey?!!” 

The first two pages (Figure 1; Figure 4) of Strömquist’s comic strip both invoke the modern concept of the nuclear family as well as begin to question it, both explicitly in the form of printed questions, and implicitly in the form of visual cues. As the comic strip continues to present the history and to critique the conceptual evolution of the nuclear family (Figure 2; Figure 5 below), Strömquist repeatedly invokes the practice of highlighting certain words with quotation marks in both the captions and the dialogue. On two occasions, single-word quotations in dialogue are explicitly connected to the image by characters gesturing in “air quotes” with their fingers. The first use of such air quotes in the comic strip is in panel 3 (Figure 4), when the televised Christian Democrat voices the end of the panel’s caption text: (“…and that CHILDREN are the most important thing we have and yada yada yada”). The capitalized CHILDREN of the text is rewritten as “children” in the speech balloon, visualized by the man gesturing air quotes with his fingers. This coincidental quoting and air quoting is repeated twice more in the second panel of the next page (Figure 5), where a distinguished-looking male figure explains to a simpleton that, “…one should be married and only be with and “in love” with each other their whole life” and “have so-called “children”.”

Figure 5. Strömquist, Liv. Einsteins nya fru. Ordfront Galago, 2018, page 116.

Strömquist’s practice of highlighting single words by quotation marks in this way characterizes the captions and dialogues of the comic’s pages devoted to historicizing and critiquing the nuclear family through such words as, “children”, “natural”, “love”, and “couple.” The repeated practice of air quoting and textual quoting serves to achieve alignment between the image and the text, as well as their mutual reinforcement. Importantly, the air-quote gesture would not make sense without the scare quotes, which in their turn could not be pragmatically indexed without the gesture. In the context of this comics story specifically and the comics medium generally, the inclusion of both air and scare quotes illustrates visual-verbal interdependence and serves an anchoring function, such that interpretation of the one relies on taking account of the other (Harvey 76; Groensteen 28). In other words, the image and text mirror each other, creating explicit image-text alignment.

The simultaneous use of air quotes and scare quotes also serves to highlight a tension between the semantic content of the quoted words and their pragmatic purpose in the discourse of the nuclear family. The conventional use of quotation marks, known as direct quotation, is to provide a verbatim citation from an identifiable source.4 

Mixed quotation has also been referred to as “hybrid quotation” (see: Byrman & Ström 23; De Brabanter 107), which represents the act of recounting by using wording from a source such that it is simultaneously used and mentioned. In other words, the hybrid quotation extracts text from a source in such a way that can both assert and question legitimacy. It thus serves both semantic and pragmatic purposes in that it conveys meaning using quotation, but can also encourage additional interpretations. Gunilla Byrman and Peter Ström distinguish between two types of hybrid quotations: one that can be considered  a conventional mixed quotation—whereby only some words are quoted from an identifiable source— and one that they term “narration via quotation,” in which quotation marks can also indicate the writer’s awareness of the quoted text as inadequate for or deviant from the discursive style of the text in which it is incorporated (23). Byrman and Ström’s category of narration via quotation can only be distinguished from mixed quotation via pragmatic interpretation, confirming the need to view quotation marks, as Daniel Gutzmann and Eric Stei do, as “minimal pragmatic indicators” (2652).

Strömquist often uses named sources and incorporates both direct and mixed quotation in her comic art texts. While there is an allusion to sources or to familiar rhetoric in “The Nuclear Family Project,” the reader is not encouraged to consider the quotations of the words “children,” “couple,” “in love,” and “natural” as mixed quotations due to the very general semantic nature of these single terms, which resist attribution to any specific sources. Indeed, these words are neither unique usages that require proper citation, nor do they need to be marked as somehow inadequate for or incompatible with the register of the discourse in which they occur. On the contrary, these words are essential to the concept and discussion of the nuclear family. Thus, it is no longer a question of mixed or hybrid quotation, but rather a repeated case of “scare quoting,” defined as the use of quotation marks “to express especially skepticism or derision concerning the use of the enclosed word or phrase” (Mirriam Webster in Perlman n.p.). Scare quoting invites the reader to consider the quoted text as having both semantic sense as well as the pragmatic function of reflecting the writer’s stance towards the quote (Herrmann & Steinbach 206, Predelli 19). Mixed quotation can be misinterpreted as scare quoting, prompting both Byrman and Ström and Merrill Perlman to stress the importance of making it clear in the communicative context whether quotation marks are being used as scare quotes (Byrman and Ström 26, Perlman n.p.). In face-to-face communication, this can be done with intonation or with the simultaneous use of finger quoting, also known as air quoting. According to Letizia Cirillo, air quoting is quite consistently interpreted as signaling the use of particular words in a “nonstandard, slang, ironic, or other special sense”, and as such represents the visual embodiment of scare quoting (2). In “The Nuclear Family Project”, scare quoting and air quoting work in tandem to highlight and ultimately expose the propagandizing of the nuclear family in a satirical way. 

Scare quotes punctuate the two pages of the comic (Figure 4; Figure 5) that are devoted to historically contextualizing the idea of the nuclear family, simultaneously suggesting that ideals can be sourced to previous, anachronistic ways of thinking, and inviting the reader to consider ulterior motives and implicatures related to their usage. Scare quoting occurs in two distinct contexts—in the captions and in the dialogue— but is only anchored by air quotes in the context of the dialogue, which is delivered by a visible speaker, who in turn can be depicted making the air quotes gesture. In the captions, the narrating “I” uses scare quotes to convey a suspicious and ironic stance towards the quoted words: “children,” “couple,” “in love,” and “natural”. By using scare quotes, the narrating “I” can expose, for example, the incongruity of the nuclear family as “natural” when, as Strömquist informs us in the first panel of Figure 5, it is a concept that is only one hundred years old. Scare quoting in the captions allows the narrating “I” to challenge the reader to look beyond the semantics of the quoted words to identify the greater, pragmatic meaning. These four words, consequently, are exposed as code for promoting the nuclear family in the form of a specifically heterosexual, monogamous, committed, long-term marriage which results in offspring. Scare quoting in the captions signals to the reader that the discourse is not really about “children,” for example, but rather the heteronormativity and monogamy that “children” represent.

Scare quoting also occurs together with air quoting on three occasions, namely, when the male Christian Democrat claims the importance of “children” and when the distinguished and old-fashioned male figure explains that couples should get married and be “in love” with each other, as well as have “children.” It is an advantage of the comics medium that, in this second case, the depicted air quotes gestures can align with scare quoting occurring in two separate turns, reinforcing the image-text alignment. 

The fact that these figures are depicted using air quotes suggests their own awareness of an attributed extra meaning. However, the comic satirizes their rhetorical strategy. It is not proposed that those who spout such dogma actually use air quotes; rather, Strömquist deploys both air quotes and scare quotes in the comic to convey how the skepticism of the narrator is triggered by the rhetoric of the speakers. The speakers’ vs. the narrator’s use of scare and air quoting can, in this respect, be differentiated in terms of Cirillo’s functions of air quotes to manage the match or manage attributions: “Air quotes have no conventionalized meaning, but can only be understood in relation to the context in which they are situated, including their co-occurrence with other cues and their position with respect to a recognizable referent” (9). Air quotes with a managing the match function “seem to focus more on a potential mismatch between the speaker’s privileged and the recipient’s limited access to specific knowledge” (9). When the Christian Democrat in Figure 4 and the gentleman in Figure 5 say “children,” or “in love,” the depicted air quotes index their awareness of the ideology encoded in these words, thereby managing the match between the words themselves as simply understood by the recipients and the underlying meaning the speakers are privy to, i.e., monogamy and heterosexual reproduction as cornerstones of the nuclear family. In contrast, air quotes that manage attributions “tend to express the speaker’s attitude towards the quoted material and thus have an evaluative character” (Cirillo 9). The use of scare/air quotes in the captions (“natural” and “in love”) have an attribution management function in that they convey the narrator’s skepticism towards the discourse of the nuclear family as propaganda. 

Indeed, the comic’s story highlights the propagandizing of the nuclear family, and the second panel in Figure 5 further suggests that the general public, represented by a simpleton, has bought into the idea wholesale. The use of scare quotes and air quotes serves to expose the speakers as imposing the nuclear family as an ideal by invoking a discursive code. The comic thus also serves to raise the reader’s awareness of and ability to recognize this coded way of speaking and think critically about the rhetoric of the nuclear family as both idealized and unscrutinised. The visualisation of speakers gesturing air quotes in this way invites the reader to extrapolate and imagine others who spout similar propaganda. The use of scare quotes, especially as they align with air quotes, underscores the rhetorical strategy of code words, distinguishes the communicative goals of the narrator from those of the speaking figures, and creates continuity between the text and the image.

The Nuclear Family in the Swedish Context

In her analysis of Strömquist’s comics album, Prins Charles känsla (“Prince Charles’ Feelings”) Ylva Lindberg argues that the work is “unbridled satire” (“hejdlös satir”) (83), and that the album could be seen as “humorous satire with a political undertone” (“humoristisk satir med politisk underton”) (86). This evaluation applies to many of Strömquist’s works, including “The Nuclear Family Project.” Indeed, Strömquist’s ambition can be interpreted as using visual and verbal satire to provoke critical reflection on authorities, disrupt previously uncontested societal values, and disturb power relations. In this context, satire is understood according to the following definition, presented by Meijer Drees and de Leeuw: 

…a socio-culturally and medially charged mode with potentially powerful effects or impact. Satire […] plays with cultural forms and identities, it travels between media and through periods of time, it provokes critical reflection on authorities, tackles values, dogmas and taboos and disturbs power relations. In other words, it contests and challenges cultural boundaries in many respects: social, medial, temporal and spatial. (5) 

Satire is closely related to its socio-cultural framework, which makes it important to have knowledge about the context to be able to understand the meaning of it (Meijer Drees and de Leeuw 270). In the present analysis, the cultural context is contemporary Swedish society, which enjoys a reputation as one of the most equal societies in the world. For example, since the 1990s, Sweden has been regarded as “a women friendly society and a feminist utopia” as well as a modern democracy, while other countries are regarded by Swedes as more backwards (Liinason 6). Women and men alike are expected to have regular work and pursue careers, and the norm is to work full time. However, Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have “adapted family life and public policy to mirror the revolution of women’s roles earlier and to a far greater degree than in most other countries” (Esping-Andersen 39). The country’s progressive family policies include, for example, an 18-month-long paid—or, 80% of one’s salary—leave to be divided between the parents. According to legislation in 2002, two months were specifically reserved for the father, increased to three months in 2016. Conventionally, the majority of parental leave (80%) is taken by the mother, whose salary in certain fields is generally lower than the father’s. Before beginning elementary school at the age of six, almost all children are first enrolled in pre-school, from 50% of one-year-olds to 98% of six-year-olds (Statistic Sweden 43).5

The overall pattern is that mothers with children under eight years of age tend to reduce their working time outside the home, while fathers work more during these first years. The result is a female work-force at 66% of full-time employment, compared to 90% for the male work-force (Statistic Sweden 59). Consequently, Swedish women take more responsibility for the family, including the household labour—28 hours unpaid work per week, compared to 20 hours for men—, although this varies over different periods in life (Statistic Sweden 41). Swedish society is thus not as equal as its global reputation suggests, which provides the background for the comics of Strömquist, particularly “The Nuclear Family Project.” This tension is highlighted by the little girl in the family portrait in Figure 3, who comments that “[…] men take only 18% of paternity leave!!” and the little boy, who notes that women perform “[…] 87% of unpaid household labour!” In this comics story, these children speak the truth of contemporary Swedish society, contradicting the seemingly ideal image of the traditional family.

The first-person narrator in the story has a prominent voice, commenting in captions throughout the comic on the overall construction of the nuclear family. As previously pointed out, a paradox is observed by this narrator on the first page (Figure 1): “IF the nuclear family is so damn great — then why does it need so much propaganda?” and “Can’t we just relax and ENJOY our relationship construction and shut up?” This rhetorical question of why the nuclear family needs propaganda if everyone likes it anyway is raised by an apparently frustrated narrator whopoints out problems and enlightens the reader with facts. The narration thus clashes with the image of a typical Swedish family contentedly sitting in a sofa watching television together, eating popcorn and drinking wine. (Figure 4). The narrator’s everyday language, including swear words (jävla, “damn”), slang (fet, “fat” (slang for “great”); hålla käften, “shut up”) and irony (NJUTA av sin relationskonstruktion, “ENJOY our relationship construction) places the critique in the reader’s contemporary time frame, while the characters say nothing. As such, the idea of the nuclear family project is presented as a construction, which, as such, allows the narrator to wonder facetiously: “Why don’t we just sit and ENJOY the nuclear family like an old whiskey?!!” The first-person narrator uses such satire to expose the absurdity of both the historical and modern nuclear family. The texts highlight a distance between the characters, which could also include the reader, and the narrator, who continuously problematizes the context of the nuclear family. For example, the well-known television talk show host, Dr. Phil McGraw, appears in Figure 6, and explains that, “As a psychologist and an expert, it is VERY good for me to get three meals served every day and to never get any criticism!” The narrator’s commentary on this old-fashioned and patriarchal attitude is conveyed through the use of excessive irony both in the text and the image.

The sociologist Gösta Esping-Andersen has argued that Sweden is experiencing a “return-to-the-family trend” in Sweden during recent years: “We observe more marriages enhancing conjugal stability, and more births—particularly among the higher educated” (35). Well-educated people are having more children, so much so that having three children has become the norm for the middle-class, compared to 1.83 children per woman in Sweden in 2007 (Esping-Andersen 35). Swedish society has also become more child-centered, focusing not just on parenthood, but also on the new type of father, who wants to be more actively involved in raising his children than the fathers before him. However, the meaning of “active paternity” varies among men. In one study (Johansson & Klinth 163), some men motivated their active paternity by claiming that it was good for the children and themselves, but not with any argument about gender equality. This could be related to child-centeredness, where children become the glue of romantic relationships between partners in a family. As the Swedish scholar Lisbeth Bekkengen has noted, such a focus “has shifted from women’s rights and liberation to the best interests of the child” (265). The first image in “The Nuclear Family Project”—the selfie of the modern nuclear family—shows this shift: it is the child who currently occupies the central position in the family, flanked on either side by their parents. Embarking on “The Nuclear Family Project” with this visual representation of contemporary portraiture provokes critical reflection regarding the necessity of the modern nuclear family project, calling its purpose into question. With over 90% of all one-year-old children living in a nuclear heterosexual family, and almost 60% of the 17-year-old children, Bekkengen argues that the discourses of the nuclear family are even stronger today than before, although it is “a social construction” which is not necessary for reproduction (249-50). 

In “The Nuclear Family Project,” Strömquist uses irony and satire already in the first caption box when the narrator opines about how “wonderful and important it is with THE FAMILY” (Figure 4). This ironic statement, amplified by the capital letters, is followed by the importance of the family and children as “the most important we have and yada yada yada.” The nonsense words “yada yada yada” underline the platitudinal quality of the utterance—and ultimately of the nuclear family itself. The narrator’s use of satire to criticize such prominent (male) proponents and defenders of the traditional nuclear family as President Bush, Dr. Phil, and Göran Hägglund (the leader of the Christian Democrats) in Figure 6 reaches a crescendo in the narrative when the narrator reflects upon the fact that the Pope, depicted as another champion of the nuclear family, does not even himself live in one. Instead, the Pope traditionally lives in a male separatistic collective with four attributes: “frankincense, frocks for men, homoeroticism, and golden hats.”

Figure 6. Strömquist, Liv. Einsteins nya fru. Ordfront Galago, 2018, page 118.

The authority of both the pope and the Catholic Church as the most patriarchal institution in the Western world is satirized in the caricature of the former with hanging cheeks, announcing, “I have to go, I am already late to an orgy.” Such a satiric utterance can be seen in relation to the context when the comic was originally published in 2008. At that time, Benedictus XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger) was the oldest man to become pope since Clemence II in 1730, and had served as Pope since 2005. Benedictus XVI was well known as a conservative pope with scandals around him.6 As Claire Colebrook has argued, a tendency of irony is “its criticism of knowledge and authority” (112; original emphasis), and Meijer Drees and de Leeuw point out that satire provokes reflections on authorities, prompting independent interpretations among its audience (5). 

Conclusion

In “The Nuclear Family Project,” Liv Strömquist satirizes the nuclear family ideal in several different ways. Firstly, the comic is composed of different narrative levels. The first-person narrator educates and enlightens the reader, providing statistics, facts, and historical context, and criticizes the image and the rhetoric of the happy nuclear family. At the same time, the characters in the panels of the story either enthusiastically promote the nuclear family ideal to a hyperbolic degree, or they undermine it with irony and sarcasm. Secondly, the images and the speech balloon texts of the three family portraits contradict each other, thereby creating irony. In the first two portraits, there is a discrepancy between the seemingly happy and cohesive families and the critical utterances in the speech balloons; in the third family portrait, hyperbole is the satirical strategy, shown by the glorification of the father figure. Thirdly, the deployment of air/scare quotes undermines the validity of the nuclear family by destabilizing its most fundamental concepts and its most enthusiastic promoters. The full extent of “The Nuclear Family Project” as a work of satire can only be understood if each of these levels is accounted for, thus warranting a multidisciplinary analysis. In availing herself of a range of satirical strategies, Strömquist can more easily trigger a critical reflection of the nuclear family ideal among her readers, one that need not be limited to the Swedish context, but could, ideally, be considered from the global pandemic and post-pandemic perspectives.

Acknowledgments

This article was funded by The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies, as part of the project, “A multidisciplinary study of feminist comic art” and by the Ottar Foundation, which supports research and educational activities concerning family planning. The authors would like to thank Liv Strömquist for her kind permission to reprint “The Nuclear Family Project.”

Notes

[1] See for example: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/oct/08/repulsive-to-children-and-adults-how-explicit-should-public-art-get, https://www.stylist.co.uk/life/period-art-stockholm-subway-tube-outrage-artist-liv-stromquist/171463

[2] Liv Strömquist and Caroline Ringskog Ferrada-Noli: En varg söker sin podd

[3] e.g., Classon Frangos; Johansson; Liinason, Lindberg “Pouvoir”, “Svenska”, “Power”; Nijdam; Nordenstam; and Rauchenbacher & Serles

[4] Also known as a direct quotation, this is one of Herman Cappelen and Ernie Lepore’s four broad categories of quotation, which also include pure, indirect, and mixed quotation. Pure quotation (or “metalinguistic citation”, De Brabanter 107) refers to the use of quotation marks to signal a linguistic expression (“Read the book!” is an imperative); indirect quotation refers to indirect speech (She said the book was good); and mixed quotation refers to a mixture of direct quotation and indirect speech (She said the book was “not as good” as she expected). 

[5] A child may begin pre-school before they turn 18 months, since parental leave can be saved until the child turns twelve years old.

[6] He was accused of transferring a known pedophile priest during his time as archbishop of Munich in 1980 (the Vatican said that a deputy was responsible for the transfer).” https://www.biography.com/news/pope-benedict-resignation 

 

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