canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Pedigree Girls
by Sherwin Tjia
Insomniac Press, 2001

Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock

But for a couple of minor exceptions, the only thing that changes in the 300-odd comic strips that make up Toronto poet, painter, and journalist Sherwin Tjia’s Pedigree Girls is the dialogue. Each strip’s three panels are identical: shoulder-up drawings of two blandly pretty girls, one a blonde, the other a brunette, both smiling out at the reader, both wearing private school uniforms. Though some of the references are to Toronto’s elite schools, the strips attempt a parody of the culture of entitlement and nastiness that grows like mould in any expensive private school. 

To further emphasize the point that Tjia’s girls are part of homogenous elite, their names shift from Kelly, to Julia, to Alexa, to Tori, to Sandra, to Gina, and beyond. To each other and to others they are vicious, insulting, and cruel – gleefully so. They revel in the cynicism that supports their own elite standing. These are the pampered daughters of the brokers, lawyers, corporate execs, and politicians that currently control just about everything. They are of the group and generation that will soon rule us and our kids.

So it is all the more important to attack them while they’re still young. Unfortunately, Tjia’s strips veer off too often from attack into sniggering celebration. Visually, the monotony of those teenage smiles is hilarious and effective. It’s in the dialogue that Tjia throw into the strips (and many of them do seem thrown together) that Pedigree Girls runs aground.

Using the voice of venality against itself is a tricky business. Tjia does manage to capture the tone of thoughtless, pampered teen-speak,

"You’re leaving?"


"Well, don’t room with Audrey. She’s got no taste. And Brenda’s only here on scholarship. Kayla gets her clothes off the rack and Sheila is just a whiner."

"Actually, I’m moving home."

"Oh, that’s good. You never know what kind of a snotty bitch could be your next roomie."

"So, are you going to stay with that haircut or what?

"I don’t know. I keep changing my mind."

"You should come with me and Mich. We’ll introduce you to Matt. He’ll take care of you. He’s giving us all, like, a hip ‘fuck you’ sort of cut."

"I’m sooo jealous. You guys are, like, moving in a direction with your hair."

Mostly though, Tjia squanders this parodic authority by simply going too far – not into outrageousness, but into banal stupidity. Rather, stoopidity. Good, meaningful satire forces the reader into a position of culpability. For Pedigree Girls to work, the reader should be tempted to admire the girls’ nasty charisma. There should be the delayed shock of realizing the pedigree culture is not marginal, but mainstream. The strips keep threatening to do just this, but keeps slipping into excess. Making them caricatures keeps them at arm’s length. We need not recognize any of their nastiness in ourselves, because, unless you are an immature turd, it’s not. At least not in the obvious way that Tjia puts forth.

"God. I’m happy."

"You look it. What’s up?"

"Ben licked me for hours last night."

"That’s great. Did you have sex?"

"Have you lost your mind? Have sex with my dog?"

"Oh, sorry."

Or, how about,

"The other day I laughed so hard I almost sneezed my tampon out."

"Does that happen a lot?"

"If I’m lucky."

Yeah. Haw, haw. Tampon. Priceless. Pass it on.

Tjia occasionally leaves the middle panel devoid of dialogue, as if he couldn’t quite stretch his vision over three,

"C’mon, it’ll be fun."


"Wipe your own bum."

These silences do work in a few of the strips, the girls’ smiles becoming ever more sinister by being rendered mute,

"Hey, Kelly, do you have any friends that aren’t white?"

"Lemme see…"



Press releases are rarely the best source for truth about anything, but the one for Pedigree Girls – however intentionally - gets it just about right: "Tjia’s comic strip heroines are vicious, ruthlessly superficial parodies of the typically private-school princess…." Tjia’s parodies really are as "ruthlessly superficial" as their targets. And, while I can’t say the book gave me "hours of amusement," I can certainly attest to the "distinct sense of futility."

Confronting ugly beauty with beautiful ugliness is at the core of the punk ethic, and there are few better target for vicious satire than pedigree girls (and boys). Some might say that Tjia’s whole project is a puerile waste of time, but I think it is what Doonesbury creator G.B. Trudeau dubbed Saturday Night Live: "a wasted opportunity." Instead of attacking the wealth-fed cynicism of his girls, Pedigree Girls ends up embodying it. He makes the satirist’s greatest error by giving his targets the last laugh. Tjia’s strips should be a big hit in our nation’s most exclusive dorms.

Nathan Whitlock selected and edited the fiction for TDR's January 2002 issue. 







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