Politics, The Internet

Homophobish

One of the side effects of everything on the internet being archived indefinitely is that a blog post from a year ago can come out of nowhere and put you in a crappy mood for the rest of the day. In this case, the post is this steaming turd titled “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous”, by Hanna Rosin on Slate’s “The XX Factor” blog.

Yes, Slate. As I was reading, I had to double-check the URL to make sure I hadn’t been spoof-linked onto Michelle Malkin’s site, because it’s full of the kind of equality-undermining language that made Malkin America’s sweetheart. (As in, “Sweetheart, go away and play by yourself. The grown-ups are trying to have a conversation here.”)

I should point out that on the “DoubleX Gabfest” podcast discussing the post, the discussion is less blatantly offensive and just more subtly gross. They celebrate the overturn of DOMA, and they acknowledge (somewhat) the distinction between an open relationship and infidelity. Still, the subtle grossness — treating gay relationships as equal but separate, combined with some old-school “Women Are From Venus” type BS — is worth drawing attention to. That’s the kind of attitude that will persist long after gay Americans — eventually, after an unnecessarily long legal process in state after state — have the freedom to marry.

But first, let’s go over again everything that’s awful about that original blog post.

Dirty Little Secret

To start with, the headline is a two-fer. First, the assertion that “Most gay couples aren’t monogamous,” which is based on “an old study from the 80s” (which is actually from the late 70s to early 80s, and which doesn’t mention sample size or diversity), and which makes no distinction between infidelity and open relationships. This gets the lede instead of the more recent and longer-term (but still “problematic,” for reasons I’ll get to in a second) study, which came to the conclusion that it wasn’t “most” but about half. That study also made the distinction between “sex outside of marriage” with the partner’s consent.

Which leads to the second problem with the headline, the “Dirty Little Secret” part:

In the fight for marriage equality, the gay rights movement has put forth couples that look like straight ones, together forever, loyal, sharing assets. But what no one wants to talk about is that they don’t necessarily represent the norm:
[...]
In writing about the subject, gay people emphasize the aspects of their relationships that sound most wholesome and straight-like, Steven Thrasher writes. They neglect to mention that, say, in Thrasher’s case, he met his partner for sex only once, and they ended up falling in love. The larger point being that gay couples are very different when it comes to sex, even if this is not the convenient moment to discuss that.

Again: not Bill O’Reilly; this was in Slate.

The idea is that in this bit of social justice theater that’s been given the politically-correct name “marriage equality” — earlier, Rosin calls it the “gay marriage experiment” — while the gay people have been asking straight people for permission to get “married,” we’ve been careful only to expose the relationships that’ll make us look normal and wholesome. That lesbian couple in their 80s who’ve been together for decades, the woman whose partner died before their relationship was ever sanctioned by the state. The shameful truth, of course, is that homos just can’t get enough of the d. A gay writer for Gawker, even, has to admit that his relationship was the result of a one-night stand. And no less than the intellectual progenitor of the gay marriage movement, Andrew Sullivan, met his husband at — gasp! — a “sex-and-drug filled circuit party”! [warning: Gawker link]

There’s so much wrong here, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do you go with the Gawker trademark of prudish scandal-mongering disguised as open-mindedness? (For example: we’re totally fine with the gay people, of course, but we’re still gonna out Tim Cook and pass it off as “why is he hiding?!”)

Or the idea that how a couple meets has anything to do with the quality or stability of their relationship?

Or the level of slut-shaming that’s required to assert that people must be hiding how sexually active they are, or how they met, because they’re ashamed of it?

Or the way Rosin casually treats open relationships and infidelity as if they were interchangeable? Which denies the entire concept of an open relationship, which sets up boundaries so that the commitment of the relationship is preserved without having to be looking for sex on the down-low?

Or the blithe ignorance/denial of the fact that these decades-long relationships started in an environment that treated homosexuality as if it were something shameful? That’s essentially the same “argument” that opponents of marriage equality have used since the beginning: of course it’s absurd that homosexuals should be allowed to “marry,” look at how immoral they are for having all that sex outside of marriage!

Or do we talk about the hypocrisy of suggesting that straight couples are inherently wholesome? Two of the things that neither Rosin nor Thrasher mention about that long-running study of gay couples: 1) They were all gay men, 2) They were all in the San Francisco Bay Area. We can all gauge our own levels of how much we want to call bullshit on making wide extrapolations about all couples based solely on a study of gay men; I definitely don’t ascribe to the straight-from-the-50s stereotype of men as constant horndogs, but I do believe that on the whole, women tend to be a bit more relationship-focused. Regardless, it’s tough to accept as a representative sample when there are no lesbians involved.

I have a lot more reservations about the “San Francisco Bay Area” part. There’s just no denying that this place is a bubble, and things are different here. I’ve seen a lot more unconventional heterosexual relationships in the bay area than I ever saw back east, and I have to call foul on any study that doesn’t consider gay couples in more conservative parts of the country like, say, Minneapolis, or even Atlanta.

So Like Us

The easiest response to a post like Rosin’s is pfft, as if straight couples don’t have issues with divorce and infidelity. And that’s valid, but too easy. Among other things, it’s a race to the lowest common denominator: gay people are no worse than we are!

It’s why, in what passes for “debate” online, we’ve always heard about Leviticus and mixed fibers and homosexual penguins and Britney Spears’s quickie Vegas wedding. It’s why a lot of people scream about being “heteronormative” as if gay people were dropped into straight society from some kind of alien asexual breeding planet. And really, in terms of baseline equality-as-recognized-by-the-state, that’s fine. Years ago, I saw a good quote on a message board, paraphrased: “I want to see a gay couple go to Vegas, get drunk out of their minds, have a quickie wedding, and then get divorced the next day. Then they’ll be equal.”

Opponents of marriage equality have always tried to disguise their homophobia by pulling in talk about procreation, child-rearing, gender roles, religious freedom, and “traditional” marriage, and never mentioning their “dirty little secret,” which is that their laws and bans are invariably nothing but anti-gay. Because if they really wanted to assert that marriage is all about procreation, they’d have to ban marriage for heterosexual people who can’t or don’t want to bear children of their own. And that will never, ever happen.

So the tactic for opponents of marriage equality is the same as with every gay rights issue: spin it around to establish that gay people have something to be ashamed of. “Prove to us why we should allow your sex-and-drug-fueled debauchery to be called a ‘marriage.’” And for the proponents, it’s exactly what makes marriage equality a no-brainer of a non-argument: gay couples don’t have any more or less to prove than straight couples do.

As a baseline for legally mandated equality, it’s fine. As a model for long-term, societal equality, though, it’s a hell of a low bar to set. “They’re not any worse than we are.” It comes across as a too-literal interpretation of “tolerance:” we’ll put up with the gays because it’s the right thing to do. It leaves people like Ross Douthat feeling anxious and afraid, just biding his time until we make it through this Liberal Nightmare of a society, and we can all once again be free to say what we’re really thinking.

It also stresses diversity over inclusivity, tolerance over equality. Because for the half of gay men in that study who “admitted” to having sex outside of their relationship, there’s still half that didn’t. Because presenting the struggle for gay rights as a well-orchestrated show of public relations — for which, at the time of this writing, with a majority of the United States still having constitutional bans against marriage equality, Andrew Sullivan is very concerned about whom gets the proper credit — there’s still the fact that two women had been together for decades, and one died before her marriage was recognized by her country. Yes, of course we should account for Dan Savage’s self-described “monogamish” relationship. But not as the representative sample of all gay relationships, and not at the expense of the relationships that are overwhelmingly, boringly, “traditional.”

Rosin puts forward straight relationships as the ones by which gay relationships can and should be judged. The immediate objection is that nobody should be judged on the basis of how “normal” they are or aren’t. But the better objection is that the notion of “normal” is largely bullshit. There are gay couples that fell in love in high school and have been committed to each other for years; there are straight couples that met during a one-night stand and ended in divorce. And every permutation thereof, regardless of gender and genitalia.

Even if you’re looking for trends, and even if you’re accounting for the fact that gay couples of “marrying age” have spent a big part of their lives in a society that treats them as if they were suffering from a mental disorder, there are still plenty of relationships that defy convention by being completely conventional. And a huge number of relationships that prove that what we think of as “conventional” is mostly fiction. How many stories about “unconventional” marriages do we have to hear before we all finally accept that Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best weren’t ever really the overwhelming norm?

And I don’t even want to get into the whole question of “sex outside of marriage.” People have been so intrusive and vulgar when talking about marriages of gay couples, that I’m wondering if I’ve been going to the wrong straight weddings all these years. Is it normal for the married couple to flash their genitals at the audience for verification? Is everyone else in the audience listening to all the jibber-jabber about “love, honor, and devotion” and thinking, “those two are totally doin’ it?” Have I just been missing the part where the couple parades the wedding sheets in front of the village, as proof of the bride’s maidenhead?

It betrays an almost Victorian prudishness, and a peculiar obsession with sex, to treat infidelity and open relationships as casually interchangeable as Rosin and Thrasher do, as lumped-together signs of changing moral standards and our diminishing desire for monogamy. An open relationship is almost the opposite of infidelity; it acknowledges that the relationship is entirely about trust, honesty, and commitment, and not just about sex.

PINO Egregious

Again, while I maintain that Rosin’s blog post is straight-up bullshit, the accompanying podcast is less objectionable. However, it trades the blatantly gross “gay people are lying to the country about their sordid sex-filled ‘relationships’” for the more delicately gross “aren’t gay couples just fascinating to us normal couples?”

The article that sparked the whole business was one in The Atlantic which asked, unironically as far as I can tell, what can gay couples teach us about relationships? On the podcast, they’re very pro-gay, and they’re celebrating the (very recent, at the time) overturn of DOMA. But they seem to be unaware that the tone of the entire discussion is distressingly similar to, “What can all of these talented African Americans teach us about rhythm?” or “We have so much to learn from the Asians about math and the martial arts.”

The tone of the podcast is that open marriages are fine for them — you go, gays! — but let’s keep straight marriages traditional. I’m not exactly paraphrasing, either: around the 13 minute mark in the “gabfest”, there’s the assertion that straight men would be happier with open relationships than straight women would be. (“Not all men,” because of course someone said “not all men.”) And then the thought that maybe this discussion opens up the opportunity for everyone to think about their relationships, an idea that one of the women shuts right down: “I kind of hope that gay marriages can function as gay marriages function, and that’s perfectly fine if it works for them, and I’m also okay with straight marriages being traditional. [...] If there are no boundaries, it sort of makes me feel lost.”

This kind of thinking alarms me, because this is the kind of thinking that ends up with someone telling me, “We just want you to know how happy we are about your gayness. We got you this leather harness to wear at your foam parties!” It’s why I make a distinction between diversity and actual inclusiveness — thinking solely about “diversity” reduces individuals to demographics, assuming homogeneity based on one trait that may or may not define them.

It’s “Progressive In Name Only,” more concerned about a baseline level of tolerance than about actual equality, or the progress that comes from actual understanding. I don’t have any interest in casting aspersions on Dan Savage’s or Andrew Sullivan’s relationships, nor am I interested in looking down on people who wear leather harnesses or go to foam parties. I don’t even know if a leather harness is something a person would wear to a foam party. All I know is that it all gets lumped together as “gay stuff.”

A while ago, there was a motion in San Francisco to ban public nudity except for during special events (like the Folsom Street Fair, for instance). Even though it was about as reasonable as you can possibly get, there was a sizable outcry, with a lot of people insisting that such a ban would be anti-gay. As I’ve often wondered since I moved to the Bay Area and suddenly found myself a “moderate” instead of the “flaming liberal” I’d been in the southeast, I wondered if I was the only person who was having problems calling this a “gay issue.” I mentioned it to my barber — a man who’s been with the same man for 20 years and has chosen not to get married, incidentally — and was surprised that he was even more conservative about it than I was: ban it outright, none of this “special events” or “put a towel down before you sit your naked ass on a public surface” compromise. Two lessons learned: 1) Calling public nudity a “gay issue” assumes that gay people are all about looking at each other’s junk; and 2) There are lots of different types of gay people.

If you support “gay marriage” because you want the gays to be able to take their party drugs and meet each other at sex parties and then get tax breaks, then… well, good. You pass the baseline requirement for not being a bigot and understanding how America works. But I sure hope you like talking about social justice issues, because there’s going to be another few hundred years of it. We’ll keep having new decades-long debates on how these special interest groups fit into normal society without stopping to consider that we’re all special interest groups.

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Politics, The Internet

The Party of the First Part

Civilwarreenactment
Civil War re-enactment by dfbphotos on Flickr

At the beginning of the month, Ross Douthat had a piece called “The Terms of Our Surrender” published in The New York Times — which meant that at least one other adult actually read it and decided it was worthy to publish in the nation’s most revered newspaper.

I’ve heard the term “poetry slam,” but this was more like a “poetry tantrum.” Like the best poetry, he makes vividly crystalline the most abstract of concepts, in this case, “staggering lack of self-awareness.” And like the finest tantrums, he describes the plight of the hundreds of millions of people completely unaffected by marriage equality, comparing their sorry fate to that of ex-Confederates suffering through the Reconstruction.

For at least a few years now, various bigots, assholes, and bigoted assholes have, when called out on their bigoted assholery, responded with increasingly tortured attempts at self-martyrdom. When Muslim-loving liberals insist on removing Christianity from public buildings and schools, isn’t that religious intolerance and a violation of the First Amendment? When a man is deprived of his God-given right to be paid for a speaking appearance in which he compares homosexuality to bestiality, isn’t he the real victim?

Last night, a throng of perfectly well-meaning and not at all hypocritical social activists, presumably dressed as firefighters holding fire hoses that shoot confetti, all climbed out of their tiny car and took to the internet to express their outrage over a joke on Stephen Colbert’s Twitter feed, one that was horribly offensive to all people of color.

As much fun as it is to point and laugh at the silly self-described conservatives, pretending that they have consciences and ideals not motivated purely by self-interest, it’s important to see how all these are related. It’s the result of emphasizing words over ideas, getting hung up on how things are said instead of what is being said.

What we’re seeing now is nothing more than a travesty of what many progressives have been doing for years, acting as if there’s an explicit list of rules that define acceptable behavior, a literal social contract. And for some people, whenever you present them with a contract, they’ll immediately start looking for a loophole.

Getting to Negotiate

It’s worth remembering that the religious persecution that Ross Douthat is lamenting is the case of a baker who’s so filled with the Holy Spirit and message of Christ that he refused to bake a cake for a gay couple. (The comparisons to Joan of Arc, Christians in the Roman Empire, and Puritans leaving for the New World are, I hope, obvious). Douthat chooses to call this “dissent” instead of “being an asshole,” and he worries that the new dogma of the Liberal Gay Agenda is making unreasonable demands on these dissenters, completely vindictive conditions of surrender such as “people who run businesses have an obligation to serve their customers.” As he describes it:

…now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Let’s completely ignore, as Douthat does, the actual principles at work here: this is a group of people who’ve spent the past two decades drawing a direct line between the love of two consenting adults and dog-fucking, but are now saying, “It’s just a cake. What’s the big deal?” So we won’t bring up some hysterical “slippery slope” example like a woman in a burkha being refused taxi service, even though we’ve seen tons of examples of actual religious persecution against Muslims in the US, such as refusing building permits to mosques.

But ignore all that, because it’s the word games that are interesting. The entire thing is such a marvel of cluelessness that you have to wonder whether Douthat deliberately chose terms like “negotiation” and “surrender” to align himself with the last few times that groups in the United States have had to surrender after losing a battle over the rights of minorities.

Part of the transcendent smarm of Douthat’s article is the way he comes right out of the gate trying to reframe the last couple of decades of gay rights issues. It hasn’t been a blatant case of a majority imposing its will on a minority, but an impassioned but reasoned debate between two equal and opposing viewpoints. The Supreme Court’s decisions against DOMA and Proposition 8 were completely arbitrary — “the logic of its own jurisprudence.” It’s not a question of inequality but of religious freedom. Opponents of marriage equality are not bigots, but a “dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation.”

Now that the gays have won, says Douthat, it’s nothing more than petty vindictiveness for these “married” “couples” to be rubbing it in everybody’s faces. The Supreme Court says we have to pretend that these conscious couplings between homos are actual marriages, but they didn’t say we have to like it. That’s effectively thoughtcrime, and it’s surely not what Andrew Sullivan intended when he invented the concept of marriage equality. (No, seriously. Douthat actually calls Sullivan “gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor.” In the New York Times).

The terms we use to describe a concept can, over time, change the way we think about the concept. That’s something that Douthat and other proponents of genitalia-based marriage have learned over the years. Right-wingers spent years publicly decrying The Liberals’ absurd “political correctness,” while surreptitiously taking notes to take back to their volcano lair.

So, over time, they began to spin themselves as free-thinkers who could see through spin. They took one of the three fundamental branches of American government and tried to make it sound un-Democratic and un-American: “activist judges.” And they tried to make blatantly unfair discrimination sound like rational counter-argument by calling it “traditional marriage.”

Incidentally, recent attempts to change up the term “traditional marriage” are as good a sign as any that the fight for marriage equality in the US is mostly over, and all that’s left is an unnecessarily long and complicated process of cleaning up. (The people who were unaffected are still every bit as unaffected. They’re now free to whine about how their religious freedom is in danger, while leaving the actual clean-up work to the people who are still being kept from having their relationships recognized by a majority of the states). Some of the most outspoken opponents — mostly the ones who believe that the central tenet of Christianity is “#nohomo” — have started to use the term “natural marriage.” At that point, it’s clear that they’ve abandoned even their feeble attempts at pretending to have a rational objection. They’re simply falling back on the old standby: “Nope. Don’t like it. ‘Tain’t natural.”

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The problem, of course, is that these self-described conservatives don’t understand that the terminology isn’t arbitrary. It’s not a secret list compiled and maintained by a shadowy cabal of liberals, designed solely to manufacture outrage by catching them using the non-preferred term.

In our actual reality, the terms that get traction are the ones that are either more accurate or more inclusive. For people who lack the empathy to understand why some terms are preferable to others, using “Native American” instead of “Indian” or “Asian” instead of “Chinese” seems just as absurd and arbitrary as using “womyn.”

In the case of marriage equality, there’s a history of changing terminology. Proponents started using “same sex marriage” to draw attention to the fact that civil laws never take love or even attraction into account, but instead attempt to define marriage strictly in terms of gender. And “marriage equality” itself gets to the heart of the matter; it’s not some new concept (invented by Andrew Sullivan), but simply people demanding to have exactly the same entitlements that their peers have. Opponents, on the other hand, have used “gay marriage” and “traditional marriage” and now, “natural marriage.” Those aren’t designed to be more accurate or more inclusive; they’re just a bunch of variations on the same idea: this is bad because it’s not normal.

To a person who’s motivated by self-interest — for convenience, let’s call him “Phil” — he doesn’t understand that you’d use the term “African American” instead of “black” to acknowledge that someone else’s cultural heritage is more relevant than skin color. To Phil, it’s just some arbitrary term that some liberals made up so that they can yell at Phil and call him a racist. It’s all but completely irrelevant what the black person (or Latino-instead-of-Mexican, or Asian-instead-of-Chinese) thinks; all that matters is how it affects Phil.

It’s right there in the term “politically correct.” People couldn’t possibly be saying this stuff out of actual sensitivity, or because it’s actually correct. They have to be saying it to get some kind of political power.

One of the best recent developments in video games is the list of “social justice warriors to avoid,” compiled by frightened and angry message board posters and Tumblrers who are fed up with people suggesting that games be inclusive. The reason it’s got me happy is that people who are bothered by inclusivity always use the rationalization that they’re not bigots but free-thinkers: they’re just saying the things that everyone else is thinking but are too afraid to say out loud. Forming a list of enemies is digging their own grave; as the list grows and grows, it’ll become clearer that bigotry and fear of inclusivity isn’t representative of the audience at large, but nothing more than the desperate panic of a backwards minority.

I’m unlikely to get labeled a “social justice warrior,” unfortunately, but I did once get accused of being a “white knight,” and it was glorious. In real life, we so rarely get those climax-of-Perry-Mason moments, where someone just freaks out and reveals exactly what an asshole he is. Telling a gay guy that he’s only speaking out against misogyny in an effort to get women to sleep with him is the purest expression of gross selfishness. The only reason a dude would possibly call somebody out for harassing a woman is to make himself look good. He must be as sexually frustrated and intimidated as I am. There’s no other possible explanation.

The Naughtiest Swear

Achewood neatestpersoninheaven
So it’s been fascinating to watch as people whose entire philosophy is based on self-interest take the tactics of progressives and try to use them against progressives. It’s a lot like watching children learn to swear: They don’t understand what they’re saying, because they have no context for any of it. They just repeat the things they’ve heard before, testing again and again to see what kind of reaction they can provoke.

It’s resulted in all kinds of Bizarro World situations. For instance, all the desperately confused people treating the word “intolerance” the same way I treat the word “nonplussed:” using it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.

If I’m driven by self-interest, “tolerance” has nothing to do with you getting to live your life without interference, and everything to do with my getting to decide whether or not your life is acceptable. And if you take someone who doesn’t actually understand the concept of tolerance, and spend several years calling them out on their intolerance, they’ll start to believe that the word doesn’t have an actual meaning. It’s just a name you yell at people when you’re not getting your way. Shout “no” enough times and you can train a dog to stay off the couch, even if he has no idea why it’s bad for him to be on the couch in the first place.

When you see the world as a selfish struggle for power, then you’re always under attack. It’s never the case that we all win; if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. Saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t an attempt to be inclusive of other religions or the non-religious; it’s an attack on your religion. We have to remind people that “it’s Freedom of Religion, not Freedom from Religion!” because there are atheists out there who actually believe that I’m as wrong as I know that they are! Bilingual signs aren’t an opportunity to learn a new language; they’re a threat because it implies there’s something wrong with me for only speaking English!

And in the case of marriage equality, much time has been wasted over the years trying to get opponents comfortable with the concept, by reminding them that they don’t lose anything if gay people get married. It was time wasted because in the opponents’ minds, they are losing something: the ability to say I don’t approve of this. If a homophobe has to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, his problem isn’t having to bake the cake. His problem is not getting to express his disapproval. (This isn’t even a particularly insightful observation on my part; several times, opponents of marriage equality explicitly said they wanted it to be up to a popular vote so that they could say they don’t condone it).

Which leads to last night’s ridiculous mockery of progressivism, the “CancelColbert” hashtag. It would’ve been laughably absurd if it weren’t so transparently manipulative. It’s offensive to see something so crass use the language of racial sensitivity, and it’s depressing to see how many well-meaning people took the bait.

You’d think that there’d be absolutely no doubt that it had nothing to do with actual racial sensitivity, as soon as perpetually clumsy opportunist and professional disappointment to the human race Michelle Malkin jumped on the bandwagon.

But even if that were somehow not enough, it should’ve become incontrovertibly clear after you read just a handful of the messages, not to mention the instigator’s desperate grab for attention full explanation. Count the number of times the term “white liberal” is used. The only truthful thing in that entire post is that there’s no point trying to explain satire to these people. They obviously understand satire enough to recognize that Colbert is a liberal comedian, and that’s all that matters. Finally a chance to beat the liberals at their own game!

It has everything to do with political power, and nothing to do with race, tolerance, inclusivity, or even the nature of humor.

Which is a drag, because some of those tweets would’ve been hilarious. One said “I DON’T NEED A WHITE LIBERAL MAN TO TEACH ME ABOUT SATIRE,” which is like a perfect diamond. But made of irony instead of carbon.

Always Punching Up

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. When a kid drops an F-bomb, you can’t just suppress a laugh and then go on about your business. You have to ask, “where did you learn that word?” And in this case, the answer is, “From you, all right? I learned it by watching you!”

It’s still tragicomic to see self-described conservatives thinking they’ve finally hit upon the right combination of words and outrage to outwit the liberal menace once and for all, only to have it fizzle once it becomes clear they don’t understand the actual concepts behind the words. But when progressives do the exact same thing, it’s not funny at all. It’s unsettling.

My go-to example is an article on Jezebel.com a couple of years ago, in which writer Lindy West tried to describe “How to Make a Rape Joke.” (Which I’m not linking to, because Gawker). Shockingly, the post was longer than just the word “Don’t.” Instead, it was a depressingly belabored attempt at a wry explanation of why Daniel Tosh is just offensive while comedians like Louis CK are actually transgressive and genuinely funny.

And again, shockingly, the answer was more involved than just “Because Tosh is a hack.” Instead, it dragged in the topic of free speech, the old claim that it’s okay to punch up but never okay to punch down, the relative horror of sexual assault vs. accidents with farming equipment, and CDC statistics on the frequency of sexual assault. As if decent human beings need to consult actuarial tables to determine whether or not something is offensive.

Few of the ideas in the article were particularly new; for as long as there’s been a “counter-culture,” there’s been the same cycle:

  1. Somebody who considers himself or herself “politically incorrect” says something offensive.
  2. Outrage ensues.
  3. After the inevitable, flaccid arguments about freedom of speech and censorship, someone asks a question like: “How come it’s okay when Sarah Silverman says something racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic, but not when we do?”
  4. Instead of giving the correct answer to that question, there’s instead a tortured explanation about the transgressive nature of comedy and positions of power and being the social underdog and okay it’s because Silverman is a Jewish woman.

But the actual correct answer is “it’s okay because Sarah Silverman is saying racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic words, but isn’t expressing racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic ideas.”

To West’s credit, she doesn’t focus on gender or race, like so many others have. (It’s always depressing when you see someone who’s progressive in so many other ways still insist that there are certain jokes and certain words that only black people are allowed to use, and some that only women are allowed to use). But her post still overwhelmingly suggests that there does exist a set of rules describing who can say what without impunity, or as she words it, “feedback.” There’s a definite structure of oppressors and oppressed, and we must scrutinize our exchanges with other people to take into account not just what’s being said but who’s saying it.

The most telling part, I think, is her defense of Louis CK. He gets a pass because he’s spent years building a library of material in which the oppressors are always the butt of the joke, never the oppressed. Which I’m assuming doesn’t include the bits in which Louis CK calls his daughters “assholes.” But wait, she covers that too: “The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.” Which I’m assuming doesn’t take into account that it would more accurately be a sociopath who thinks that way and that there’s a very real problem of judging the mentally ill instead of getting them the help that they need.

Gold is Fine, Thanks

That’s not (just) me trying to one-up politically correct speech. The point is that treating it in terms of a social hierarchy is what turns it into “politically correct” instead of just being “correct.” There isn’t a complex set of rules governing how we show basic human decency to each other. The rule is simply “be inclusive and empathetic.”

The feeble idea behind Tosh’s schtick is that you’d have to be a sociopath to think the things that he says, too. And he doesn’t need to have been working in comedy for decades to be given the benefit of the doubt; “not a sociopath” should be our baseline assumption about everyone until they prove us wrong. Tosh’s material isn’t funny because he doesn’t do anything with it. It’s just one example after the next of saying the most shocking thing he can think of and then grinning at his own naughtiness. It’s not transgressive because there’s no thought behind it. It’s just words.

Take that to its most absurd extreme and you end up with the “Cancel Colbert” nonsense. The instigators hoped that we’re gullible enough to believe that the context was irrelevant. The very act of a white male uttering the unspeakable words is horribly offensive.

The motivation for that, obviously, was a cynical power play. But I see no difference between that and the way that many actual progressives treat the exchange of ideas as if it were a perpetual game of Taboo. Whenever you find yourself saying, “You’re not allowed to say…” or “Intent doesn’t matter,” that’s a sure sign that you’re doing inclusivity wrong. You’re focusing on the speaker instead of what’s being said. If you focus on social inequality instead of making the baseline assumption that we’re all equal partners in a conversation, then you’re doomed to just keep repeating the same power struggle over and over again.

A couple of years ago at a Game Developer’s Conference, a few people were pleased with themselves for coming up with “The Platinum Rule.” The idea was that it’s not good enough to treat other people as you want to be treated; it’s much better to treat other people as they want to be treated.

I was alarmed that more people didn’t instantly see how horrible an idea that was, much less that they’d promote it as a feel-good symbol of inclusivity. It’s the opposite of inclusivity. It consigns us to always see each other for our differences, instead of acknowledging that no matter what our background, we all want the same things.

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Arts & Entertainment, The Internet

Ms. Representation

On one of the NewStatesman blogs, Sophia McDougall wrote an excellent essay titled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” The basic premise: in an attempt to counteract decades’ worth of depicting women as weak or submissive, popular media has just replaced one stereotype with another. Male characters are allowed to be multifaceted, flawed, or neurotic, while female characters all have to be strong.

McDougall’s essay has some fantastic passages — my favorite is “…the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman.” But really, each of her main arguments, on its own, is pretty self-evident.

On the topic of “strong female characters,” Greg Rucka wrote a post for io9 in 2011 that goes into more depth about his process and why it’s important to write realistic characters, some of whom are women. And McDougall’s other assertion, that we need to have more roles for women and more diverse roles for women in popular media, is something that many of us already accept as trivially true. At least, those of us who are in the audience for a blog post about “strong female characters.”

I think the reason McDougall’s essay is genuinely insightful is that she doesn’t simply say, “be aware of the problem.” She offers a suggestion as to why the problem exists and how to fix it. She takes two ideas that we’d otherwise just take for granted, and she explains how they feed into each other and how they result in a larger, more nuanced problem.

That, I believe, is what it’s going to take to get genuine acknowledgement that a problem exists and earnest attempts to try and address it.

Ten Shocking Reasons Internet Lists Are A Bad Idea

I feel obliged to point out that I don’t agree with all of McDougall’s essay. I think that much of it veers dangerously close to the level of shallow, divisive list-making that qualifies as “pop feminism” on the internet.

When talking about Captain America, she laments that the character of Peggy Carter is one of the best in any of Marvel’s comic book movies, but is still only one of exactly two women with speaking parts in the entire movie. That’s fine, but then for some reason McDougall feels the need to argue against a straw-man suggesting that there were no women fighting in WWII. Would anyone really ever make that claim, anyone worth listening to, anyway? The more reasonable counter-argument is that of course there were women in WWII, but few women in WWII comic books, which had little if anything to do with reality. And Captain America was obviously, shamelessly an homage to the feel of pulp WWII comics.

McDougall also complains that the character is depicted as over-the-top and cartoonish for shooting at Captain America out of jealousy. Again, though: comic book. Unlike, for example, X-Men or Iron Man or even The Avengers, I never once got the sense that Captain America was going for anything other than over-the-top and cartoonish.

She acknowledges that the two problems are related, though. And while I don’t agree with either of her observations, I think her conclusion is dead-on: any problems with Carter’s character are magnified because Carter is having to represent her entire gender.

Later on, I think McDougall falls into the trap of feminism-as-listicle, which treats quantity and quality as interchangeable. She shows three movie posters (and two movie trailers) of male-dominated casts with a lone female character, and concludes that the ladies are there to provide just enough of a feminine presence that we don’t think to object.

The problem is that the way each of those female characters is actually portrayed in each movie varies wildly. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of variety that she spends the rest of the essay claiming should be our goal. I’ve seen more trailers for Elysium than the one McDougall links to, and they all have Jodie Foster delivering lines, although they’re the same two-dimensional, mustache-twirling lines of any action movie villain. In Pacific Rim, Mako’s silence isn’t a stereotype of the deferential woman, but a stereotype of the reserved Japanese soldier — the idea that there’s a tumult of emotions roiling under her quiet exterior is key to her entire storyline, such as it is. In Inception, Ellen Page’s character doesn’t represent femininity so much as youth; it’s Marion Cotillard doing all the lifting as the movie’s Lone Female Presence. (Which isn’t to defend Inception as not being guilty of the problem, just that the poster is a terrible example of it).

Most dramatically, the same list includes The Avengers and The Smurfs. In The Avengers, Black Widow is given as much screen time as any of the “powered” characters, and she’s given several scenes dedicated to depicting her as strong, sexy, smart, and human. In The Smurfs, Smurfette is quite literally the prototypical example of “The Girl One.”

You could say a lot about the depiction of women in general and Black Widow in particular in The Avengers and its marketing. But to include it in a list with The Smurfs — or any of the other movies listed, for that matter — is easily dismissible, and it threatens to derail the entire argument. It reduces an argument about the quality of female characters to one simply of quantity.

Babies, Bathwater, and “THIS.”

The reason I’m pointing out my objections to the essay is because of all the times I’ve been forwarded a link to an article, and been left wondering how much of it I’m supposed to agree with, exactly. It seems like it’s impossible for any progressive issue, particularly feminism, to make it through the internet without having something objectionable attached to it.

The formula, as far as I can make out, is to start with a premise that’s so trivially true that your audience couldn’t possibly disagree. And then include as much offensive stuff in the rest of the piece as you can get away with.

So you end up with a blog post that asserts that we should never make assumptions about a woman’s capabilities, and then says that my white male privilege means I didn’t have to work very hard to get what I have. Or one that asserts how harmful it is when we trivialize sexual assault, and then goes on to say that all men think like rapists. Or one that decries the misogynistic excesses of a TV series, then speculates that it could be because one of the series creators is gay, and a lot of gay men hate women. Or one that talks about how comedians need to demonstrate respect for and sensitivity to their audiences, and then makes a sophomoric interpretation of human interaction as being about people coming from differing “positions of power.” Or one that purports to be about equality but reveals itself to actually be about reparations.

Every one is a case of a good idea buried under a bunch of bullshit. Fighting sexism with more sexism, racism with more racism, and doing everything possible to keep the discussion in terms of Us vs Them instead of basic human empathy. It’s polarizing, because it’s not designed to actually encourage discussion. It’s designed to encourage page views. You’re not supposed to say, “I agree with the premise but disagree with these points.” You’re supposed to just link to the article and say “THIS.”

And it’s self-perpetuating. Because writers are too eager to address the low-hanging fruit — the morons and troglodytes who spew out bile, harassment, and dismissive condescension — wasting time talking to the ones who’ve already demonstrated that they’re unwilling to listen, and ignoring those of us who are engaged. I’m not asking for preaching to the choir, but maybe at least opening the discussion to the choir. As it is, it’s a lot of preaching to the atheists while reminding the choir to check their privilege.

As a chubby guy who remained closeted until his early 30s largely because he could never identify with any of the gay men depicted in popular media, I’ve been told that I don’t understand what it’s like to have negative body image, or how important it is to have a diverse representation in the media. After seeing the same thing over and over again, getting more scattershot and offensive with each go-round, I’ve pretty much completely removed myself from caring about discussions of gender politics on the internet. There are too many people willingly behaving like characters in a John Irving novel, who were supposed to be over-the-top caricatures 40 years ago.

For the past six or seven years, at least once a year, I’ve read another piece from a writer lamenting that discussions of feminism and equality are invariably cyclical. Years ago — far too long ago for me to be able to find a link — I saw a cartoon that was meant to show “What Discussions of Women’s Rights on the Internet Are Like.” And it was one panel with a woman making some vague but reasonable argument, followed by a panel with a bunch of male idiots saying easily-dismissible bullshit. Kind of like Plato’s Dialogues, if one of the participants was a drooling moron.

Of course you’re going to keep making the same arguments, as long as you keep arguing to the lowest common denominator instead of addressing the more reasonable counter-points.

1:1

I’m sometimesoften dense about these things; in the past I’ve objected to the idea that characters be arbitrarily made female. And I still object to that idea. But then, it’s all in the wording: who’s to say what’s “arbitrary?” As was pointed out to me in the comments, the flaw was that I was still assuming that characters are male by default.

If you start with the assumption that characters in games are typically male, and that the way you get female characters is by removing a rib, adding a beauty mark and a bow, and removing half her costume, then it’s always going to seem as if making female characters is some arbitrary requirement to fulfill some quota. It was never conscious on my part; that’s how institutionalized sexism works.

That’s why I think McDougall’s essay is so interesting: she doesn’t just sermonize about two ideas that most of us would accept as trivially true, “Invariably ‘strong’ female characters are unrealistic” and “Women are under-represented in media”, and present them as separate concepts, that we should just accept as dogma. She explains how one feeds into the other. Maybe it’s obvious to other people, but it was kind of a new concept to me.

If you’ve got a male-dominated cast with only one woman, that woman has to be strong. She’s got to represent her entire gender on her own. None of your male characters are going to be interpreted as representative of all men, because their gender isn’t the aspect that distinguishes them.

McDougall says that she wants to see the ratio of male to female characters in film to go from its current level of 3:1 down to a more realistic level of 1:1. I still say that numbers don’t tell the whole story; one Black Widow is worth at least three Hawkeyes, and to me, Maria Hill was much more interesting than Nick Fury was.

But if anybody complains that it’s a case of instituting a quota, you can ask why their characters are so fragile that the whole story falls apart if the demographics are the same as that of the real world. Seeing as how women are over 50% of the population, it seems that you have to present a good argument to justify their exclusion, not their inclusion.

And if anybody complains that making a demand over something as arbitrary as gender is violating the creative process, you can remind them about the Strong Female Character. And point out that there’s nothing creative about spending years spitting out minor variations on Emma Peel that still aren’t as good as the original.

I still don’t believe that doing a simple gender-swap accomplishes much of anything — but then, look at Ripley in Alien. I said before that her character in Aliens was a lot stronger because they incorporated her being a woman into the story. I still think that’s true, but it doesn’t diminish the significance of Alien, having a female character who’s taking command of the situation instead of just being a victim.

And if anybody still doesn’t get how all these things are inter-related, and why better representation for women in the media is important, ask him to imagine a world in which every single male character in every movie and TV show is Tom Cruise’s character from Mission: Impossible. If he claims he’s not horrified by the thought, he’s not being honest.

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Politics, The Internet

Pity the Poor Oppressed Majority

Over on The Gameological Society, there’s an interesting article by Bob Mackey, in which he talks about a recent Kickstarter campaign for a video game and ultimately, whether there’s any validity to the concept of separating an artist’s work from the actions and beliefs of the artist herself.

In this case, the artist in question is Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim and designer of the newly Kickstarted game, which is a spiritual successor to 90s claymation adventure game The Neverhood. As promotion for the campaign built up, a writer for the GayGamer blog sent out a link to one of his own articles from 2011, pointing out some inflammatory anti-gay comments that TenNapel had made in the comments for one of his webcomics.

I was aware enough of TenNapel’s work to be able to recognize the name, and I had the vague idea that his political beliefs were diametrically opposed to mine, to say the least. I didn’t know much more, other than that a lot of people I respect were personal friends of his, and a lot of friends and co-workers were big fans. So for me, it was jarring to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds filling up with people excited about the Kickstarter and recommending that everyone back it, while on another page here was the guy comparing homosexual relationships to “letting a man take a dump in the ladies room.” I was incensed.

But in retrospect: should I have been so harsh? Those comments were from two years ago; do I want to be the person that holds every single thing a person says against him, indefinitely? I’m pretty certain I’ve never said anything as offensive as his analogy, but I have said a lot of things online in the heat of the moment; would I want to have those shoved in my face every few years? And sure, I’m reading his Tweets and every one of them is making my blood pressure go up a notch, but maybe he just gets defensive and doesn’t respond well to criticism? If he really were as loathsome as the impression I’m getting, why would so many people be giving him a pass on it? I know that before I came out, I was a pretty big homophobe, so I know from experience that attitudes can change drastically over time. How can I know whether he still holds the same views he expressed in that conversation?

A Martyr In the War for the Sanctity of Our Bathrooms

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Much like Beetlejuice, TenNapel will appear anywhere on the internet after his name is intoned enough times. And he won’t leave you wondering for too long exactly what his opinions are. And as it turns out, I’m left with the impression that I wasn’t harsh enough.

If you look through the comments thread for that Gameological post, you’ll see Mr. TenNapel leap in to attack the writer and make his case in response to the other comments. And it’s a non-stop parade of false equivalences, ignorance, bigotry, claims so false they’re nonsensical, and case after case of the tiresome, paranoid martyrdom of self-described conservatives who refuse to understand the concept of “tolerance.”

Among everything else, he says that his “take a dump in the ladies room” comment was taken out of context. If like me, you were wondering in what context it was appropriate to compare the loving relationship of two adults to taking a dump, then rest assured that TenNapel is just talking about how there are rigid exclusive sexual roles that everyone understands. He points out that he apologized for the comment in that GayGamer comment thread (and he did, more or less), and it becomes clear that he was apologizing for the “crassness” of the phrase “take a dump” itself. Actually comparing marriage to defecation is A-OK.

And not just defecation! At various points, he manages to compare homosexuality to Mormonism, Scientology, polygamy, and in a sense, Christianity. Don’t worry about the last one, in case it seems out of place; the comparison is only that they’re both belief systems that people are persecuted for. There’s really no point in treating any of it as grounds for conversation. If someone in the United States in 2013 is still unclear on the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual preference, he’s either never spoken to a gay person, or he’s been refusing to listen.

I’m more inclined to believe the latter, because throughout, he repeatedly insists that he’s the victim of character assassination from The Left. That the whole question of marriage equality (or “gay marriage,” since he’s still living in 2005 apparently) is nothing more than political theater, a culture war that secular leftists are waging on free-thinking, conservative Christians like Mr. TenNapel.

You really shouldn’t have to keep explaining this to a functional adult, but: if you get your way, my government denies me access to one of the most basic and fundamental of societal institutions. If I get my way, your life is not affected in the slightest. That’s not a political difference; that’s injustice. And what’s more, as loathsome as I find Mr. TenNapel, no matter how toxic his opinions are, or how opinions like his have made a travesty of American politics, or how much he’s corrupting my chosen religion by using it as a shield while refusing to hold to its most basic tenets of love, compassion, charity, responsibility and humility — even with all that, I’d never attempt to denigrate his marriage or deny him the ability to raise children. And that’s why I’m right, and that’s why I’m eventually going to win.

But, again. Nothing new. It’s so old, in fact, that I’ve been complaining about it for at least five years. The culture of victimization among self-proclaimed conservatives, who insist that there must be a leftist agenda setting traps for them in an attempt to control how everybody thinks. And all because they lack the most basic capacity for empathy. They insult or actively seek to harm people different from them, then cry “liberal intolerance!” and claim that they’re being repressed by people who think differently from them. All with no apparent sense of irony.

Just Business

The only reason I find it worth mentioning at all is because of the sheer weight of persecution that TenNapel has to bear, simply for being a conservative Christian who supports traditional marriage. I hope that that Kickstarter has a stretch goal of getting him a new Victim Card, because the one he has has been played so often, it’s in shreds.

In those comment threads and on his Twitter account (and presumably, elsewhere), he says repeatedly that sinister forces are smearing him and threatening his projects. (And still, somehow, they’re ultimately ineffectual because for every $1 he gets denied, someone else contributes $2 because they like to be able to think for themselves. But they’re still sinister and threatening the downfall of Christianity and ruining America). He went to the other people involved with the project and warned them that they’d get criticism from his involvement, but they stuck with him. All just because he’s brave enough to speak his mind.

And he’s not affected by any boycotts, but won’t we think of the poor homosexuals? His team is very inclusive, and it’s clear he doesn’t “hate” gay people because he works with many of them. Because, as we all know, gay people might not be good enough to get married or raise children, but at least they’re good enough to work to profit Mr. TenNapel. So when anyone boycotts the project because of TenNapel’s involvement, all they’re really doing is hurting all the innocent LGBT folks trying to make a video game.

Seeing that idea repeated over and over has finally clarified how I feel about the whole concept of “separate the art from the artist.” Since I’ve complained about this several times, as it relates to video games and comic books and chicken sandwiches, it might seem like I’d already made up my mind. But that’s not the case; I’ve tried to keep an open mind and tried to remind myself that some people just see a clearer line dividing a product from its creator.

But TenNapel’s repeated protestations make it clear that he wants nothing more than to shift all blame and culpability to other people. If you don’t back this project simply because of something he said, then you are hurting all the other people who worked on it. He warned everyone that there’d be this reaction because of other people who don’t like what he says. He’d be totally willing to remove his name from the project if it would help get it funded now that other people are raising a big stink.

Nowhere is there any sense of his responsibility. Nowhere does he make the connection “I say stupid shit about LGBT people, it ends up hurting this project that LGBT people are working on, maybe I should stop saying stupid shit.” Because that would be caving to the liberal agenda, and denying his commitment to Christianity on account of all that stuff Jesus said about marriage being all about genitalia.

Every single time something like this comes up, there are those who complain that boycotts create a chilling effect. And that’s bullshit. What they do is create a world where words and actions have consequence. Where people actually have to stop and think about how they’re affecting the other people they’re sharing the planet with. And you don’t get a pass for being a jack-ass just because you draw comics or wrote Ender’s Game or make delicious sandwiches.

(Incidentally, in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I was never interested in Earthworm Jim, and that I tried to play The Neverhood but didn’t get very far before I completely lost interest. That’s not meant to add to the dogpile, or denigrate anybody else’s enjoyment of them or excitement about the project; they’re just not my thing. I only mention it to admit that I’m not at all conflicted when I complain about this stuff. Every time I pass by a Chick-fil-a, it’s with a heavy heart, but I wouldn’t have backed this game regardless).

As far as I know, the game’s already gotten funded, several times over, in fact. I don’t have any particular interest in sabotaging it. But I do find it hypocritical to claim that it’s just business, that there’s anything mature or noble in enjoying one part of what a person puts into the world while ignoring the rest. It seems to me to say, “I’m going to remain free to say and do whatever I want, to give money to whichever cause I choose, without regard for whom it’s hurting. And you’re not only entitled but obligated to make sure that I’m not affected by my actions at all. Because to do otherwise would be petty.”

And it’s always pointed out that the people involved are wealthy or at least successful enough that they’re not impacted at all by a boycott. (But it’s still really bad that you’d suggest boycotting it, for some reason). That’s always designed to make it sound like your protest is pointless. To me, it just sounds like another way to try and denigrate the people who are protesting, to remind us that we’re powerless. My protest is a lot more valuable to me than the $10 pledge or $5 combo meal is to them. To paraphrase Mr. TenNapel: America has thousands of jerks unable to find funding for their projects every day. Take a number.

The New Closet

The real reason I’ve been thinking about this, though, is that I’m seeing a little bit of encouragement in the things that used to infuriate me. I’ve always been annoyed by comments that suggest we need to be patient before people are treated equally. That fairness takes time. I still don’t agree with that on the legal side; you shouldn’t need to wait for justice, and it’s still a travesty to put a minority’s rights up for popular vote. But on the social side, it’s heartening to see what a dramatic change has taken place just in the few years since I’ve been out.

I’ve always hated the hypocrisy of people in the majority claiming that they’re the victims. I get angry when they try to make it sound as if some cabal of Homo Leftist Atheists have constructed some Politically Correct PRISM program that monitors everything people say, just waiting for them to slip up and utter an un-approved phrase so that they can swoop in and attack. As America’s Sweetheart Ann Coulter once lamented, liberals have made it so that you can’t say the word “faggot” anymore without being sent to rehab.

And now, I keep seeing all these self-described conservatives simply overwhelmed with paranoia over Liberal Thoughtcrimes. They have to change all their terminology, so that bigotry becomes “tradition” and laws that break up families are called “family oriented.” They complain that their free-thinking ways are being oppressed by a society that hates them simply for being different. And they go absolutely ape-shit denying it whenever you call them a “bigot” even though honestly, girlfriend, please. It’s so obvious.

And it reminds me of how miserable it was to spend years watching what I said, afraid that I’d admit to liking someone it wasn’t socially acceptable for me to like, or that I’d use the pronoun it wasn’t socially acceptable for me to use. The constant everyone knows paranoia, the fear that I’d be shunned if anyone found out my terrible secret.

Except now, I can casually talk about my boyfriend, and admit to liking Russell Crowe movies for reasons other than “he seems like a pretty cool guy.” I was ashamed of something I never should’ve been ashamed of, and now the truly shameful behavior is being relegated to the closet. And I’m just petty enough to be enjoying the poetic justice of that.

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Television, The Internet

My Problem with The Big Bang Theory

After some consideration, I have determined exactly what it is about The Big Bang Theory that makes me uncomfortable: It’s not funny.

Or more accurately: I don’t think it’s funny, while millions of other people — including many in my peer group! — absolutely love it.

And I think that’s ultimately the entire problem. There’s a blog post called “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory” that was passed around back in September of last year, and now for whatever reason has been getting a lot of circulation again in the past few days. In it, the author explains how the show doesn’t celebrate nerds, but simply continues to mock them. The character of Penny, the normal one, is the only character the audience is supposed to identify with; the others are supposed to be seen as weird and alien. Plus it’s a little racist, a good bit misogynist, homophobic, and it makes fun of people with genuine mental disabilities.

The only part of that post that I agree with is the one complaint that the author quickly dismisses: the show relies on lazy humor. It has references for their own sake, not as part of a well-constructed joke, or even to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and inclusion over a shared memory. The references just come across as pandering.

I wouldn’t be able to go into detail, since I’ve only seen a handful of scenes from the series and never a full episode; my opinion of the show sounds about the same as Angus T. Jones’s opinion of Two and a Half Men. But in one of those scenes, as the characters were fighting to be heard over the laughter, there was a whiteboard in the foreground covered with an Objective C class diagram. For those of us who roll our eyes whenever we’re subjected to ridiculous abuses of technology in CSI and the like, an accurate inclusion of something real computer programmers would actually use would seem to be entertainment nirvana. But in the show, it just sat there, inert. It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it, with the caption YOU RECOGNIZE THIS.

Turning It Off And Back On Again

You could contrast it with The IT Crowd, a series which inverted the power dynamic of The Big Bang Theory by making its nerds and geeks identifiable, and making its “normal” character the subject of mockery. You could say that, but you don’t have to, ’cause you got pronouns, you can say: The IT Crowd understood how to include familiar references without drawing attention to them. It made its references both more subtle and more absurd. The nerd-pandering EFF stickers and action figures and T-shirts (for which Graham Linehan requested recommendations on Twitter) are kept to the background and almost never explicitly acknowledged. The only episodes that were explicitly about technology were deliberately ridiculous, centering around Friendface or convincing someone that the Internet was a black box with a light on it.

While I think it’s true, more or less, that The IT Crowd flipped the predictable premise by making the nerds the heroes and making fun of the normals, I don’t think that says anything of merit. For one, because The IT Crowd wasn’t about IT any more than Father Ted was about Catholicism. And more importantly, because The IT Crowd didn’t choose sides. It made fun of all of its characters. It spent as much time making fun of Moss for being dysfunctional and weird, and Roy for being insecure, horny, and a little homophobic; as it made fun of Jen for being dense and shallow.

That blog post tries to compare Big Bang Theory to Community, and concludes that the latter is better, partly because the audience is meant to identify with Abed. I say that’s absurd; almost half the episodes showed how Abed is deeply dysfunctional. Community was meta-television — often self-consciously so — that made fun of the idea of protagonists vs. villains, identifying with any character over the others, and the entire premise of a situation comedy.

In fact, both Community and Big Bang Theory started with the same structure; Community presented itself as a fish-out-of-water premise with Jeff Winger as the normal guy surrounded by a bunch of crazies. It then dismantled that premise by making it clear that he was every bit as messed up as the other characters, but they all grew to depend on each other. That doesn’t sound so different from the first season or two of Big Bang Theory. The biggest difference is that Big Bang Theory focused on the old “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline, while Community referenced it, mocked it, rejected it, and then repeatedly used it.

Nerd Blackface

All of that leads me to two conclusions:

  1. The whole “geek chic” thing is gradually turning into something malignant; and
  2. Don’t attribute to complex social dynamics and inequalities of power what can be more easily explained by inequalities of talent.

For the first part: I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory described several times as “nerd blackface,” which makes this all heartbreaking because I absolutely love that term. But the problem with it is that it results in weirdly defensive over-reactions, and it relies on simplistic assumptions that act as if Revenge of the Nerds were a documentary.

For instance, that blog post, in which the author feels obliged to establish her [I'm assuming, based on the rest of the blog] geek cred. It’s always a little sad to see someone feeling it necessary to establish themselves as a geek when their blog is full of animated GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you’ve already made it quite clear you’re a nerd, and to be clear that is awesome. It’s like a few weeks ago, when the ridiculous “fake nerd girl” kerfluffle arose, and a lot of women responded by establishing themselves as legit nerds. Instead of doing the more sensible thing and simply pointing out that the entire notion of a “fake nerd” of any type is asinine and immediately dismissible.

Another example: this honest, heartfelt, and probably well-intentioned post (in Gawker-friendly list format!) by Annalee Newitz called “Six Good Habits I Learned From Being Bullied as a Geeky Kid.” Sincere kudos to Newitz for putting herself and her experiences out there, and it’s always welcome to see a reminder not to let yourself be driven by what other people think of you. But the whole thing seems to be predicated on the old ideas that nerds are somehow more discerning than the mainstream; and that the best revenge is being successful while seeing the people who bullied you fall to obscurity and realize that their best days are behind them.

The first idea is belied by The Big Bang Theory. It’s a Chuck Lorre television series, which almost by definition means it’s mainstream. And a ton of nerds love it, to the point of buying the merchandise, identifying with the characters, and naming scientific discoveries after catch phrases from the show. Plus it’s a mainstream television series that must have a sizable percentage of nerds on staff, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have whiteboards full of Cocoa Touch class names. (Or for that matter, have frequent guest appearances by celebrity nerd hero Wil Wheaton).

That Tumblr post specifically calls out Wheaton, Sara Gilbert, and Jim Parsons for being more or less Uncle Toms because of their participation in the show; I say that’s absurd. Their participation should be a clear sign that the whole notion of Jocks vs. Nerds is simplistic and exclusionary. “Nerd” isn’t some homogenous group — even if you try to subdivide it into geeks, dweebs, and geeky dweebs — everybody’s into weird stuff and has had their own experiences of feeling rejected or feeling like an outsider, to some degree. If that were in doubt, I’d think the revelations that Rosario Dawson knows Klingon and Vin Diesel plays D&D would’ve laid waste to that tired old notion. But still, I frequently see people trying to martyr themselves and put forth the idea that nerds are somehow The Chosen Ones, suffering nobly until their time in the spotlight. In fact, what they’re doing is anything but inclusive; it’s building an internet treehouse and attaching the sign “No Pretty People Allowed” out front.

The most blatant example of that is The Guild music video “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which I find disturbing in at least a dozen ways. How is it that a bunch of actors wearing unflattering hair styles and accentuating their overbites is not as much a case of “Nerd Blackface” as anything on The Big Bang Theory? Is it because actress and producer Felicia Day has firmly established her geek cred, while a Jewish television writer — who ends every episode of every series with a wall-of-text vanity card only legible to those who record the show and pause it — is one of those beautiful people jocks? (And while I’m at it, one of Lorre’s high-profile privileged early jobs was writing for Roseanne, just like another television series creator who never earned his geek credentials).

Even more important than the question of “who’s this coming from?” is whether it’s a good message to be sending at all. It ignores the fact that some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever encountered were nerds who themselves got bullied when younger and were trying to over-compensate for it in adulthood. Or that if you’re an adult and still complaining about the jerk who pantsed you in high school, that means you haven’t really gotten over it and moved on.

“Nerd” or “Geek” isn’t a protected class, and it shouldn’t be one. Some of the most awful people I’ve run into have been at nerd conventions, and some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered have been at board game conventions. The stuff nerds like isn’t necessarily any better or smarter than the mainstream; for the record, I don’t personally like The Guild at all, either, but I’m glad that it exists and that there are tons of people who can enjoy it. If the thing that unites a “community” of nerds is that they’re really, really invested in the stuff they enjoy, then shouldn’t that be the focus, instead of bitterness over the people who don’t appreciate it?

So essentially, I’m saying: Get off the 20-sided dice, we need the plastic.

How Not To Tell People How To Make A Rape Joke

And then there’s the attempt to attribute the problems of the show to some imbalance of power between Normals vs Nerds, or Gays vs Straights. That’s a lazy trend that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it’s worse than just a Geek Pride debate because it actually intersects with genuinely serious issues.

A couple of months ago, there was an internet controversy when Daniel Tosh insulted a heckler with a stupid and insensitive comment about rape, and hundreds of people were tripping over themselves to be the most vocal to condemn it. There was a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel — Internet go-to site for shallow social analysis — that correctly called out Tosh for being a moron, but then went off into straight-up BS territory by trying to establish what’s offensive vs. what’s acceptable, and trying to explain to readers how exactly to tell an offensive joke. The author insisted that it’s about context, that sexual assault is more statistically likely to be sensitive to more members of the audience than other horrific events, and that it is ultimately about making jokes from a position of power mocking those with less power. She concluded by trying to explain why when Tosh makes a rape joke it’s offensive, but when Louis CK makes a rape joke it’s funny: it’s because Louis CK has spent 20 years making it clear that he’s on the side of good, and that he’s against rape.

Which is bullshit. What makes one offensive and the other funny is that Tosh is an opportunistic hack, and Louis CK is actually an extremely talented comedian. Lindy West’s claim that there’s some kind of hierarchy of offensiveness, where sexual assault trumps cancer, AIDS, industrial accidents, and infant death, is just plain ghoulish. And her tortured attempts to explain it in terms of actuarial tables based on CDC data is 100 kinds of wrong-headed bullshit. The only difference between Tosh’s comments and Louis CK’s joke is that the author thinks one is stupid and the other is funny.

And she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Louis CK has built a career out of being an awkward misanthrope, and he’s made fun of women, men, rape, race, politically correct language, and repeatedly called his children little shits. A huge part of his stand-up material depends on shock value. Tosh’s depends on shock value, too. To imply, as that Jezebel article does, that Tosh actually believes what he’s saying, and he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because he may actually be in support of sexual assault and complicit in “rape culture,” is ludicrous. Louis CK didn’t spend the last 20 years earning the right to not have audiences automatically assume he’s pro-rape. Unless you’re a writer for a blog that makes ad revenue off of links to controversy, you should automatically assume that no one is actually making light of rape, until they prove otherwise.

What Louis CK spent the last 20 years doing is learning how to construct a joke. Louis CK’s joke that West quotes depends on shock value just like Tosh’s comments; the difference is that one was cleverly constructed, while Tosh’s comments are the shallowest version of “wouldn’t this be shocking?” possible. Tosh’s whole schtick is firing a shotgun blast of every racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive thing he can think of — and from what I’ve seen, I’d guess it’s literally every single one he can think of — and grin through the whole thing because he’s being naughty and subversive. There’s little cleverness or originality to it, and he almost never takes it any farther than the initial shock value. (I’ll admit that I’ve laughed at some of Tosh’s material on the YouTube clip show, but always when he takes the joke to an absurd extreme, instead of just going for the obvious “old joke about Mexicans/blacks/gay people/asians/women”).

A lot of people have defended Tosh by pointing out that he makes fun of everything and everyone, which is something that West acknowledges and then dismisses. She tries to counter by explaining how there are things that are appropriate and inappropriate to make fun of, which is missing the point entirely. The defense, such as it is, isn’t that Tosh is making fun of the wrong things. The defense is that by making fun of everything, he’s in reality making fun of nothing. It’s simply crossing the line for its own sake. Contrast it with, say, Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up routine is a similar uninterrupted string of offensive, shocking things, but who’s a lot more clever about making it clear whom she’s mocking. To put it in Big Lebowski terms: Silverman is clearly opposed to conservatism, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. Tosh believes in nothing.

What’s most heartbreaking is that the Louis CK joke that West quotes in her article isn’t really a “rape joke” at all, but instead makes fun of and dismisses her entire argument. The entire shock value of the joke comes from the initial implication that there’s ever an acceptable excuse for rape, or in fact that there are degrees of acceptability when talking about horrible things. It doesn’t depend on context at all; it’d be funny no matter who told it, because it only requires the audience to know the difference between right and wrong. Please, bloggers, if you’re going to take it upon yourselves to explain jokes to people, at least take a few minutes to study how jokes actually work.

Everything I Know About Human Interaction I Learned From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

And “how jokes work” gets back to why I’ve got a problem with that attempt at analyzing of The Big Bang Theory. It tries to drag in issues of social inequality, popular culture’s representation of women, and homophobia when the better explanation is that the jokes simply don’t work for some of us.

I blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or really, the fact that popular entertainment started getting really good around the same time that self-publishing in the form of blogs became really viable. It meant that “low art” like Buffy — which was designed to be as easy to pick apart as any good parable or fairy tale — got analyzed and over-analyzed, to the point where self-apparent interpretations were accepted as genuine insight. Back when colleges first started offering courses that gave literary analysis of Watchmen, or discussed Buffy in the context of feminism or folklore, people commented on how unusual it was. But it quickly became accepted as commonplace. That, along with Oprah and TV psychologists, meant that pop psychology or social studies came to be seen as on the same level as academics.

And anyone who thinks I’m being overly dismissive of “low art” or pop culture is free to read any of my long dissertations in defense of pop culture. In brief, though: my defense of “low art” and rejection of “high art” is not that low art is as nuanced or as complex, but that art is about communication, and there’s no inherent superiority of obscurity for its own sake. A piece of entertainment that is intended to be “easily digestible” — e.g. how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural to intensify the trials of adolescence and young adulthood — can be every bit as valid as something that invites multiple interpretations.

In any case, and whether that’s the actual cause or whether I’m full of it, the result has been a glut of shallow interpretations of media and popular culture passed off as more complex and insightful analyses. For example, using cultural context and background to determine the right way to make light of sexual assault. It’s similar to how some feminist blogs explain their use of the word “bitch;” or Dan Savage’s stunt attempt to “take back” the word “faggot;” or the people who twist themselves into knots explaining exactly how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use the n-word, based on the race and cultural background of the speaker and his or her audience. In reality, though, it’s all much more simple: the n-word (and for that matter, the c-word) is fucking irredeemably hateful and offensive, and no one should use it, ever.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same type of false logic used to try and explain how the game Cards Against Humanity is “problematic,” how certain scenes in American Horror Story are objectionable while others are fine as lurid entertainment, and why the violence in Tomb Raider is more objectionable than the violence in any other video game. With the first two, at least, it’s a misguided attempt to establish a “do not cross” line with something that exists entirely to make the “line” irrelevant. And all of them to one degree or another assume that modern audiences are primarily made up of sociopaths, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unable to tell even the difference between right and wrong. And yet, somehow able to discern what it is that makes death from AIDS or the Holocaust somehow less sensitive than sexual assault or racism. It assumes that the audience is actually reveling in or making light of the horrific, and then compounds that by suggesting that there are degrees of what’s horrific and what’s appropriate fodder for comedy.

Even worse than that, it makes discussions about actual issues spin out of control and descend into unproductive noise. It’s how “you don’t understand a joke” gets interpreted as “you can’t take a joke.” Or “your analysis has no merit” gets interpreted as “your premise has no merit” and then “racism/misogyny/homophobia don’t exist.” And why people so often get infuriated to hear “You’re over-thinking it,” when the actual complaint is “You’re making an easily-dismissible mockery of what is actually a serious but ultimately simple issue.”

Which is the most roundabout possible way of explaining my accusation: that article about The Big Bang Theory is over-thinking it. That’s not to say that smart, tech-savvy women aren’t grossly under-represented in the media. It’s not to say that homophobia is no big deal. It’s not to say that it’s okay to make fun of people with mental disabilities, and it’s not to undermine the damage caused by being bullied or socially ostracized.

All I’m saying is that you don’t need to mention any of that to explain why the jokes in Big Bang Theory feel uninspired and clumsy. Or if you do use that as your justification, then you have to explain why it’s okay for The IT Crowd to make fun of nerds and gay people, Community to make fun of the mentally disabled, and The Guild to pander to an audience of self-described geeks, but not okay when Big Bang Theory does the same thing.

Instead of trying to come up with a tortured explanation involving in-groups and outsiders, traditional inequities of cultural power, gender roles and role reversal, and institutionalized sexism and racism, the simplest explanation works best. All require people to be able to laugh at themselves, some people are simply better at writing jokes than others, and not everyone is going to find the same thing funny.

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