Like everybody else in the US, I saw the story about a man being beaten and dragged off a United Airlines flight for refusing to “volunteer” the seat he’d paid for. Seeing friends’ reactions to it on Facebook beat and dragged me just far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to realize that yes, it’s almost definitely the case that the man’s ethnicity played a factor in how far it was allowed to escalate. Fortunately for you, the reader, it didn’t drag me far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to convince me that the internet wasn’t interested in hearing my opinion about it.
When I saw the video that had been recorded and broadcast by a passenger on the plane, I was sitting in San Francisco at my job writing social media software for mobile supercomputers. I watched the video on my touchscreen-enabled internet-connected tablet computer, playing in a window on the screen around the comments coming in live from viewers around the country, next to a sidebar describing how the reality TV celebrity who was now the President of the United States had authorized military theater missile strikes on another country without Congress’s permission.
And in response to one of the most viscerally blatant abuses of power against a person in an objectively, grossly unfair situation, reaction was mixed. Outrage against United Airlines was running neck and neck with assertions that the real problem is the guy didn’t do what he was told.
It was at that point when I realized son of a bitch, I’m living in a shitty 1990s corporate-run future dystopia.
I spent years making fun of those things as being hackneyed and adolescent. I rejected anti-corporate paranoia as sophomoric, literally — the kind of thing that college students choose as My First Liberal Outrage Experience on their way to becoming truly Woke. Now here I am just one cybernetic implant away from living it.
What’s especially magical about the United Airlines incident is how it combines so many 21st Century United States attitudes into one thoroughly unproductive and distressing conversation. There’s absolutely a streak of the “Conform! Embrace the police state!” types, but it’s at least tempered with — if not actually overwhelmed by — the kind of lazy, cynical, apathy that pervades everything in 2017. Even cheering the Chicago PD for beating up a guy would be taking too strong a stand. Instead, you get more of the “Well, actually, FAA regulations state that…” contingent.
They’re not defending United, oh no. They just want to make it clear that it’s not as simple as you’re making it sound. There are just so many shades of gray to the issue of a corporation requesting the physical assault of a civilian for not peacefully complying with the fact that they’re denying him the service that he paid for.
(And yeah, I will go to the easy comparison: it’s the same thing you heard a lot of before and after the election. People kept insisting that they’re not necessarily a supporter of Trump, but then would go on to defend one of the hundreds of completely reprehensible and un-American policies he proposed during his campaign. “Look, I’m no fan of the man who openly mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign speech, I just believe in common sense immigration reform, like a multi-billion dollar wall between two peaceful trading partners.”)
So now I’m in the biofuel-powered hoverboat of someone who knows enough about crappy 90s dystopian sci-fi to be able to make fun of it, but not enough to actually live in it. And on the bright side, if we had to pick one thing from the late 80s and early 90s and agree that we were going to make that our future, we could’ve done worse. At least we’re not all living in a global version of that 4 Non Blondes video.
Trainwreck is reasonably (if not spectacularly) funny, and the most surprisingly brave thing about it is that it’s so often sincere, not that it’s so often raunchy. It’s also overlong, oddly paced, too reliant on celebrity cameos, and disappointingly reluctant to go over the top with its gags, especially since we’ve all seen just how amazing both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader can be when they’re free to go full-on bizarre.
What Trainwreck isn’t:
I’m not quite sure how anyone could have misread this movie as badly as they did. When the first reviews came out, a recurring complaint was that all the potential of Schumer’s breakthrough feature film starring vehicle had been Judd Apatow’ed: turned into a raunchy but ultimately conservative spin on a completely conventional movie format.
It wasn’t until the very last scenes of Trainwreck that I started to see why some people may have thought their America’s New Feminist Hero had been straitjacketed by a guy who likes to make movies about 40-year-old stoners getting happily married. It’d still be a dense and wrong conclusion, considering the rest of the movie, but it was just a simple misinterpretation that could easily be cleared up by one of my remarkably insightful blog posts.
But not only does Amy explicitly explain what the point of the final scenes were, Hader’s character interrupts her repeatedly to say “Yes, I get the metaphor.” She went out of her way to make sure her message is clear, but it’s still not clear enough for the faux-progressives.
Our Miss Schumer
Take for instance “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck”, which, if the title didn’t already give it away, is written with the tone of someone who doesn’t understand that Los Feliz Daycare is a parody account.
In case you can’t make it past the part where he inexplicably puts “married” in scare quotes, the gist is that writer Peter Knegt and his diverse group of friends felt betrayed. They’re long-time devotees of Schumer’s stand-up routine and Comedy Central series, and for them, this was going to be their big event movie. (“…like I imagine various demographics might approach ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Dark Knight.'” where “various demographics” is code speak for “straight nerds”). But Judd Apatow took Schumer’s slutty, boozy persona that they all identified with, and turned it into a judgmental and heteronormative morality play that “slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride.”
It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn’t feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer — our Amy Schumer — want to express such a notion?
Okay, for starters, she’s not your Amy Schumer.
The basic premise of the entire article is more backwards and offensive than even the most willfully ignorant interpretation of anything in Trainwreck. It says that a successful woman at a huge breakthrough point in her career, who’s got her own television series (not to mention the pull and the sense of loyalty to cast her friends and family along with the people she admires), managed to write, star in, and co-produce a feature film, but simply couldn’t help but get steamrolled by a man who’s powerful in the industry.
Another thing I find “problematic” is the increasingly widespread trend of people so eager to take offense at something they find “problematic” that they forget how fiction works. So they insist that celebrities explain it to them, or else there’s gonna be hell of think pieces about it on Salon. Knegt even acknowledges that Schumer’s slutty, boozy routine is an exaggerated persona. But he ignores that to go on for another page and a half, refusing to acknowledge that stand-up routines are painstakingly written and rehearsed performances, instead of just humorously-delivered affidavits.
For me, the reason this crosses the line from just annoying to downright infuriating is that Schumer has been so deft and clever at handling it without having to explicitly explain it. One of the most subtly brilliant things about her TV series (and which is carried on in Trainwreck) is that all her characters — even the wackiest and even the most offensive — are named Amy. That implies that they’re all, at least to some small degree, aspects of her. Which is huge, because it removes both the defensive distance that comedians usually keep between themselves and their subjects, as well as any sense of judgment.
That’s why my initial take on Schumer’s material years ago was so flat-out wrong: she’s not just a shallow gender-swapped, raunchy shock comic. She didn’t just combine Lisa Lampanelli’s “I can be as raunchy as any man!” schtick with Sarah Silverman’s “I play the part of a clueless white girl to make a larger point” and call it day. The bulk of her material is carefully constructed to talk about multiple things at once, and she almost always includes herself as a target. It’s what elevates much of her material to satire instead of just gags. And it’s probably why Knegt and his friends have always felt that she was representing them instead of judging them.
I Feel Like I Won
As long as I’m draining all the humor out of things by over-explaining them, let me do it with the bit that Knegt quotes (in full) in his article, the one where Amy has to endure a bridal shower with a bunch of “Stepford Wives” from Connecticut.
Schumer adapted this joke into the storyline of Trainwreck with a couple of changes. It’s the changes that Knegt takes issue with, by — surprise — finding them “problematic:”
But the other, much more problematic difference is that it seems Amy doesn’t quite feel like she’s won the game this time. She even feels the need to call up the person whose baby shower it was and apologize.
Considering that he’s a self-professed fan of Schumer’s comedy material, it’s weird that Knegt would only acknowledge the change in wording (with a “fair enough,” as if it were arbitrary), and the addition of a scene afterwards, instead of taking into account how the context, subject matter, timing, and in fact the entire punchline changed. Here’s a few things that he either missed or didn’t acknowledge:
That joke is old, in stand-up terms. If you’ve heard a comedy bit enough times to have it memorized, you can be sure that Schumer’s heard it a thousand times more. And considering that Trainwreck isn’t a “best-of” concert movie, but instead a debut screenplay, you can make one of two conclusions:
The woman who’s co-written three seasons of a comedy series, years of stand-up sets, Comedy Central roasts, and countless smaller routines for hundreds of appearances, was either so in love with that one gag, or so hard up for material, that she just put in as much of the bit as Apatow and Universal would allow.
Amy Schumer’s really smart, and she reworked some of her older material to fit in with a larger message, to make it say something more than it did as part of her stand-up set.
I’m skeptical that even Judd Apatow was saying “Shit, early cuts of our romantic comedy are only 2 hours long. We need some filler material, quick. Amy: do your ‘Connecticut Stepford Wives’ bit!”
Schumer’s raised her own bar for shock value. Changing Amy’s contribution to the game wasn’t just arbitrary. “I let a cab driver finger me” just doesn’t have the same punch after doing a commercial for Finger Blasters with a bunch of teenagers. So there’s probably a reason it was changed.
The stand-up version of the joke is still funny, but kind of mean. At least by Schumer’s standards in 2015. Not undeservedly mean, because she’s making fun of her friend for being ashamed of her younger behavior, and making fun of the arrogant and judgmental women who’d try to shame her. But in that version of the joke, they’re exclusively the targets. The gag is “I really shocked the hell out of those uptight bitches.”
The old joke is still there. You still get to see the shocked expressions on Nikki Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty’s characters. (Which is itself funny, knowing that instead of bringing in the usual suite of blonde actresses hired to play the Stuck-Up Bitch role, they cast a bunch of women comedians). But it doesn’t end there. Schumer’s newer material builds on the assertions of her older stuff, adding more layers and more targets, but without losing what made the original gag work.
The timing of Schumer’s line completely changed. Now it’s more drawn out, into a vulgar (but still pretty funny) story about having to fish out a condom that’d gotten lodged in her cervix. After the “she just said something shocking!” moment, we get to see how she keeps pushing it just for the sake of making everyone uncomfortable. And the person she’s making most uncomfortable is no longer the friend who’s ashamed of her past and worried that Amy’s going to embarrass her. It’s her sister, who’s long been the butt of Amy’s jokes for living a “boring” “normal” life.
Amy’s line is no longer the punchline. Instead, that goes to the character played by Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett, who feels “empowered” enough by Amy’s story that she can admit to getting double-teamed by her husband and another dude. It’s telling, too, that Everett’s story is about a kind of sexual adventurousness, while Amy’s has been changed to be not about casual sex itself, but the tedious and kind of gross aftermath of it. That acknowledges something that wasn’t present in the old version of the joke: some of these women have their own wild-ish stuff going on too, without choosing between the polar opposites of “enjoying life” and “being married.” (It also shows that Schumer isn’t so wrapped up in her breakthrough starring vehicle that she won’t give good lines to her friends).
She doesn’t call her sister to apologize. It’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie, in fact. Her sister calls her, Amy casually (but sincerely) apologizes, and her sister dismisses it as no big deal. Partly because she just knows that’s the kind of thing Amy does, and she understands where it comes from even if Amy herself doesn’t. But mostly because there’s something much more important to talk about.
What Schumer’s done is keep everything that made the old bit work, and then added a layer of empathy and self-awareness to it. The character of Amy had been so concentrated on saying “fuck anyone who tries to judge me” for so long, that she’d ignored how judgmental she’d become herself.
I think the funniest line in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch is when Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her “Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?” Amy looks absolutely elated and replies with a delighted “Yes! Yes! Thank you!”
By complaining that Trainwreck sold them out and is being judgmental of them, Knegt and his friends are saying they’re not interested in actually listening to anything that Schumer wants to say beyond the most superficial level. They just want to feel empowered by hearing her talk about her pussy some more.
But At What Cost?!
Now, if I went off on a tear every time a young writer for a queer blog found something “problematic,” I’d never get anything done. It’s the kind of thing they do, and I understand where it’s coming from even if they themselves don’t. But when I hear basically the same thing coming from a Pulitzer-recognized film critic, I worry that it’s becoming a trend.
What makes Knegt’s article such an easy target is actually part of what’s good about it: it’s completely honest in what it’s trying to say and why it upset him and his friends. And while he does ignore everything Schumer’s trying to say with Trainwreck in favor of how it didn’t meet with what he wanted to and expected to see, at least he does it by comparing it to her older work.
The Taming of Amy Schumer by Stephanie Zacharek is more worrisome because it not only ignores the fairly easy-to-read message of the movie, it compares it to a simplistic, two-dimensional, and frankly antiquated conception of what feminism is supposed to be. (Granted, it’s the Village Voice, so know your audience and all that. But still).
Zacharek gets off to a good start, lamenting how there’s an extra burden on women writers and comedians now that we’re living in the age of the “problematic:”
in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way.
Yes! So far, we’re in near-complete agreement. But then the entire rest of the review contradicts or undermines everything in that first paragraph.
Zacharek’s problem with Trainwreck, like Knegt’s, is that she believes the movie is too focused on conservative moralizing. And she too believes that it’s mostly the fault of the same man:
But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow […] Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.
Complaining that the movie isn’t feminist enough while also asserting that Schumer’s will has been beaten into submission by Apatow is a pretty impressive double standard. I can only assume, naturally, that Zacharek’s original vision for the review was wrestled into the standard Village Voice template by some male editor.
(Hopefully, he’s also the one who thought “Don’t be a Hader” was a funny gag. Because if that’s hers, I don’t even know why I’m bothering).
Some of it I’ll assume is just tone-deaf instead of sexist: I’m skeptical that if she were aware of just how much of Amy Schumer’s material has been devoted to ruthlessly excoriating the bullshit, esteem-destroying standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, and how much she’s mocked her own weight gain, “baby fat,” and the men who’d call her “butterface,” Zacharek wouldn’t have described Schumer’s appearance as “like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.”
To illustrate how there’s an unfair added expectation for women in comedy to be funny and smart, Zacharek references another Voice piece about Inside Amy Schumer, and a couple of sketches from the show. But she only references the ones that went super-viral, and the reason that they went super-viral is because in addition to being funny, they were so overtly political that they were easy to interpret.
But the entire premise, that Schumer’s too occupied with being feminist to just let loose and be funny, is completely invalidated by the existence of Cat Park. Anyone who doesn’t think ending a sketch by having a cat looking into a microscope to develop a vaccine to save the world’s children is someone who just doesn’t understand comedy. I said good day, sir.
And more than that, the true genius of the series is how it takes an overt statement and then layers more stuff — from a point about feminism to some shamelessly goofy gag — on top. One of my favorites is still Love Tub, which is a parody of The Bachelor that wants to say more than just make the obvious assertion that The Bachelor is backwards, sexist bullshit.
In a lot of ways, it’s another expansion and evolution of the “Stepford Wives of Connecticut:” it’s still indomitable-spirit Amy sticking it to the squares and prudes. But the target is no longer just some concept of boring “heteronormativity;” the target is the corruption of that into a schmaltzy and insincere televised competition for a man’s attention. The guy’s creepy whispered “Congratulations” as he undresses the “winner” is still my favorite part.
Amy’s still doing her slutty-and-boozy-as-I-wanna-be schtick, but it’s even more exaggerated. She still, without question, gets to end the night saying “I think I won,” because she refused to take any of that bullshit seriously. But the coda takes it a step farther: you’re not supposed to watch the end of that sketch and conclude, “Now there’s an independent woman who’s entirely got her shit together.”
Still, for some reason, people went to see a movie called Trainwreck, and they went away feeling betrayed that it wasn’t intended to be aspirational.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Zacharek’s review of Trainwreck is a prescriptive piece of film criticism dressed as a progressive one.
It starts with the assertion that Schumer’s making an argument she’s no longer particularly interested in making, and then criticizes her for doing a lousy job of making that argument. Essentially, Zacharek is faulting Trainwreck for not being about Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City (which began in 1998):
We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries.
Or in other words, the same assertion that was the basis of Schumer’s stand-up routine for several years.
And this is despite the fact that every piece of promotional material before the movie’s release made it clear what the premise was: what happens when a character like that has lots of remorse- and shame-free sex and then falls in love with a boring, “normal” guy? That had to be in the press kit.
While Knegt sees it as a betrayal that Schumer’s not still doing her earlier, funnier, stuff, Zacharek’s holding up a lighter, yelling “Freebird,” and demanding a repeat of the deepest cuts from Ms. and Cosmopolitan-era feminism. Even after dismissing the idea that women can’t be funny as a “boneheaded dictum,” she goes on to let the counter-argument of that frame the rest of the review. Women can be as funny as men! Women do enjoy sex!
It doesn’t matter that Schumer’s spent her career distilling complex observations about feminism and empowerment into two-minute long comedy routines. Why can’t she keep doing that? We just want to hear the same trivially true assertions repeated over and over again.
What Amy actually wants — Schumer or Townsend, take your pick — is pretty much irrelevant. You want to write a story about a woman whose self-destructive behavior is visibly making her life worse? What are you, some kind of prude? We paid our money to see a successful and empowered career woman (circa 1988) who gets to have it all and can be just as raunchy as any man. But instead of that, you went and wrote something conventional. So arrogant.
Also it’s not funny enough. You should smile more.
What’s especially frustrating in this case is that Trainwreck contains exactly the simple-minded gender-swapped romantic comedy that internet progressives crave. Amy works for a lifestyle magazine! (And it’s a men’s magazine! That’s run by a woman!) Bill Hader’s character is the over-achieving career guy who’s got it all… except love. Not only is he a surgeon who has every single famous athlete as a client, he also does award-winning work for Doctors Without Borders! Vanessa Bayer is Amy’s enabling, perpetually horny, commitment-phobic best friend. LeBron James is Hader’s supportive and nurturing best friend who’ll do anything to keep him from getting hurt.
In the age of feminism-as-meme-and-YouTube-series, that’s supposed to be enough. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any acknowledgment of context or whether it’s saying anything of substance: just look at it! Isn’t that something?! Like, subscribe, and retweet.
But the most interesting aspect of the basic premise in Trainwreck is that no one comments on it, ever. It’s just accepted as a given. I’ve been struggling to think of any instance in the entire movie where someone makes any reference to traditional gender roles, or makes any sort of comment that it’s weird how everything is swapped, and I can’t remember a single one. The only thing that comes even close is when Hader tells her he’s slept with three women, and the gag is that she replies “I’ve also slept with three women.”
In other words, Schumer is so uninterested in the argument that women can do everything men can, that she doesn’t even bother making it.
Strong Female Character
There’ve been sketches on Inside Amy Schumer that started with the premise of the gender swap, like the uptight office worker who finally breaks free of his inhibitions at an all-male version of Hooters, or the porn from a lady’s point of view that still turns out to be for men. (Note the pop-up ad for O’Nutters). An underlying message is that the swap is silly, because the context will always be completely different. The double standard is just too deeply ingrained.
Which turns out to be depressingly accurate, since in Trainwreck, Amy gets criticized for not even being able to be a lovable fuck up in the right way:
…her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. […] Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.
In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.
We already know that acceptable behavior in a romantic comedy would be creepy if not outright illegal when applied to real life. But there’s a much older fucked-up but universally accepted aspect of romantic comedies that’s even more insidious and more pernicious: the double standard. When men in romantic comedies (and real life) do stuff that’s callous, insensitive, selfish, or irresponsible, it’s a plot complication. We scramble for justifications: he’s just defensive or insecure. He’s been hurt in the past. It’s the age-old mantra for women everywhere: “I can fix him, I just know it.”
When Amy’s self-destructive behavior causes her to be insensitive or hurts people’s feelings, she becomes completely irredeemable and unsympathetic. Toxic. Avoid at all costs. Character flaws don’t just make her a bad person, but a bad role model for young single women and men everywhere.
Knegt’s article says it’s a “cringe-worthy montage” (and yeah, the montage aspect is pretty cheesy) when Amy tosses out all the booze and pot paraphernalia in her apartment. What he neglects to mention is that this scene comes after Amy gets upset over a break-up, drinks to excess, hooks up with a guy she doesn’t like at all, comes just short of being guilty of statutory rape and assault, and loses her job as a result of it.
In a later scene, she outright tells her sister that she’s not happy, and that she feels like she’s “broken.” The response from Knegt and his friends, apparently: “Sack up! Learn to deal with it, because you’re making the rest of us look bad.” It’s the kind of compassion that says a true friend is the one who holds your hair back when you puke while you’re drinking yourself to death.
And Trainwreck absolutely does “reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is,” just not in the too-tidy way that Zacharek wants. It says that one of the consequences of sex is that people can get hurt. That’s the entire point of John Cena’s character.
I think Zacharek’s read on the character — “somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake” — is totally at odds with what’s shown in the movie. It’s not “his mistake,” since it’s completely reasonable that he’d have different expectations from their relationship. And it’s not that he “somehow” thought they were more serious, since they’re going out to romantic comedies together. (Incidentally: the movie-within-a-movie was bafflingly pointless). As he says, having to declare that you’re “exclusive” is not something that adults do after high school, since they’re supposed to talk about it with each other and get a mature understanding of what they’re both hoping to get.
Their break-up is not at all ambiguous: she likes having sex with him (even if it is “like fucking an ice sculpture”) but had so little respect for him that it never even occurred to her to consider what he wanted. His last lines are explicit: “Fuck you, Amy. You’re not nice.”
Still, the script puts the blame on Amy but doesn’t condemn her for it. She genuinely doesn’t understand that he could’ve wanted something different, because isn’t this just the way things are for everyone? If you’re not married by your early thirties, it’s because you’re never going to be because you don’t want to be. That’s just the way things work.
(To underscore that — or maybe it’s just a funny recurring gag, but I’m going to run with it anyway — there’s the suggestion that he might be gay and doesn’t even realize it himself. He’s just going through the motions of what he thinks he’s supposed to like and supposed to want).
Another of my favorite sketches from Inside Amy Schumer shows how men and women can have very different expectations after having sex. It’d be easy and simple just to say that the guy’s a dick for taking advantage of her and then immediately forgetting about it. But the sketch careful to exaggerate how much she’s responsible for her own unrealistic expectations. Which says to me that whether she’s playing the apart of the emotional bully or the one being taken advantage of, either way she’s going to be the one who takes the blame.
Ten Things I’m Not Saying About You
This time, Schumer’s getting criticized (albeit indirectly, since remember she’s apparently nothing more than a mouthpiece for Judd Apatow) for saying that “a retreat to the safety of sobriety and monogamy” is The Only Way.
Except of course she’s not saying that at all. The most didactic that Trainwreck gets about monogamy is to say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to be dismissive of.
Typically, when a flawed character is criticized for being a negative representation of Everyone Who Ever Lived Who Has Any Recognizable Traits In Common, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of diversity. The character has to bear the weight of representing everyone, because there’s no one else in the story who can.
That’s not the case with Trainwreck at all. Not only are there many types of women, there’s many types of relationships. Tilda Swinton’s character seems to be a fascinatingly bizarre take on Richard Branson, and she’s callous, cruel, and just plain weird, but there’s never even the slightest question whether she’s exactly where she wants to be. Bayer’s lecherous idiot doesn’t just come out of the movie unscathed, she gets awarded with a promotion. I already mentioned that Bridget Everett’s character is happily enjoying married life in the suburbs with her husband and the other guy who double-teams her. Even in Chris Evert’s cameo, she spends the entire time not-at-all subtly hitting on Hader.
And of course, the boring, uptight housewives are now even more boring and awful than they were in Schumer’s stand-up routine: now the scandalous secret is that one of them is sneaking a whole box of Skinny Cow ice cream at night. That’s like a whole ice cream!
As it turns out, people didn’t need to spend so much time worrying about what she was saying about them. On the day that Trainwreck opened, Schumer came right out and said what it was about:
Which, really, is the most offensive thing you could possibly say to some people: this isn’t about you.
At the beginning of the movie, Colin Quinn’s character is lecturing his two daughters about how monogamy is unrealistic. The humor comes from two places: that he’s dismissing monogamy as a fundamental concept when it’s completely obvious he’s just frustrated he can’t fuck around like he wants to, and that the two little girls are repeating what he says word-for-word as if it were a crucial life lesson.
Fast forward to the girls as adults, and we see that one sister has taken the lesson completely to heart and the other has rejected it. One sister is having plenty of remorse-free sex and partying and advancing in her career, while the other has settled down in the suburbs with a dorky guy and a heartbreakingly nerdy stepson. One sister is living exactly the life she wants to lead, while the other is just settling for doing what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing.
Can you see what she did there?
I don’t know how much of the movie autobiographical, just like I don’t know how much of Schumer’s stand-up routine is “true.” Not only is it none of my business, it’s almost completely irrelevant. Unless I need her to explain to me explicitly how much of it is satire so I can determine exactly how much offense I can take.
What I suspect, though, is that the finale of the movie is framed like a totally conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment, specifically as a pointed “fuck you” to anyone who’d dismiss it for being a conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment.
Throughout the movie, she’d mocked the men she was sleeping with, mocked her nephew, mocked her brother-in-law, mocked her sister for being boring, mocked her job for being beneath her, mocked herself for falling in love and becoming such a cliche, and mocked cheerleaders and sports in general as being stupid and pointless. In the end, she puts on the cheerleading uniform, does a cheerleading routine to a song she hates, and — as befits an empowered 90s woman — makes a run for the basket. The entire time, Hader’s character is telling her that she doesn’t have to do this, but she keeps doing it anyway. Of course she doesn’t have to do it, but she wants to.
And then, when she’s breathlessly trying to explain what it all means while he’s saying “Yeah, I get the metaphor,” is the first time since I Know Where I’m Going that I almost teared up at the end of a romantic comedy. Partly because Hader’s a good actor even when he is playing it totally straight, and the look on his face was one overwhelmed by sincere appreciation. But mostly because I was genuinely happy to see her be truly fearless and risk looking stupid to get what she wanted.
This Is What You Think Is Hot?
I said earlier that it’s disappointing that the sketches from Inside Amy Schumer that go viral are always the ones that are overt in their message, when there’s so much even better material that works on multiple levels. An exception to that is the one that went viral at the beginning of this season: Milk Milk Lemonade.
In the grand tradition of funny stuff that boring people like me love to write think pieces about to over-analyze: it’s a parody of Anaconda that wants to say more than just “Anaconda is kind of silly.” It suggests that women having the freedom to objectify themselves is a pretty shitty substitute for actual empowerment.
When Anaconda came out, everybody was stumbling over themselves to use terms like “sex positive” and “positive body image” and “owning your own sexuality,” trying desperately to put a progressive spin on a video in which a bunch of women writhe around in the jungle celebrating each other’s loaf pinchers before presenting them to Drake. Putting the whole thing over a sample from a 20-year-old novelty song was apparently supposed to be an example of “taking it back.” Inside Amy Schumer’s version responds, “Nah, I don’t want it. I’m good.”
Something that’s not mentioned in Schumer’s video (for that matter, I’m only assuming it’s parodying Anaconda in the first place): I’m going to call bullshit on any claims that Anaconda is positive or empowered when it spends so much time saying “fuck the skinny bitches.”
And that’s why I think “Milk Milk Lemonade” is kind of brilliant, and ultimately why misinterpretations of a romantic comedy I liked but didn’t love were enough to set me off on a few thousand words of rambling commentary. The video makes a pointed commentary, but it’s not particularly interested in condemning or even really judging anybody. More than anything else, it feels like Schumer wanted to dress up with her friends and have fun.
It’s gloriously, unapologetically juvenile. If it makes a statement about women owning their own bodies, it does so the same way a six year old makes a statement about owning a cookie by licking it before anyone else can — ha ha I ruined it for you! It treats the whole thing as completely silly, because it is silly. “My sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on whether or not a guy is turned on by my ass.”
But also: hey, if it’s your thing, knock yourself out. No need to get defensive because it doesn’t affect her. She’ll just be over here dancing with Amber Rose and Method Man because they seem cool.
To me, it shows just how much the culture of “engagement,” retweets, trending topics, and think pieces have helped corrupt every progressive “social justice” ideal into a defensive version of “fuck the normals!” (And how that’s always rationalized with some “they attacked us first!” justification like the inexcusably insipid “always punch up!”) The goal of self-actualization has been de-emphasized in favor of just swapping one version of conformity with a different one. Inclusivity has given way to word-policing. The word “heteronormative” has been so casually tossed around as a pejorative that people now act as if “hetero” is the toxic part of it.
And every time some pinhead pipes up with an antiquated opinion, people stumble over themselves to correct it, or to at least show they are vehemently opposed to it. Not because it actually advances anything, but because it’s easier. At some point, we each have to decide how much of our lives we’re going to waste reacting to other people’s opinions of us. Otherwise we’re going to just keep having the same stupid arguments every 5 years until we’re all lying in our cryo-feeding tubes croaking “People can be whatever they choose to be!”
Amy Schumer gets to make her voice heard and waggle her ass in tight skirts. She gets to mock anyone who’d judge her for her looks and make fun of her looks for a ton of comedy material. She gets to write at length about cunnilingus and about a girl winning the heart of her One True Love. And she gets to do it without demeaning or mocking anyone who doesn’t deserve it, because they’re simply not a threat to her.
Some people may call it selling out, but I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like she’s won.”
If you read any sites that talk about video games within the past week, you’ve probably seen the story about Nintendo’s new game Tomodachi Life. The “game” — from the sound of it, it’s more like a toy than a game or even a simulation — allows for characters of opposite genders to fall in love and get married, but doesn’t allow it for characters of the same sex. When some gamers started a kind of hashtag protest, Nintendo responded with a spectacularly tone-deaf comment to the Associated Press, saying that the game was supposed to be a silly alternate world instead of a simulation of real life. “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”
The internet quickly filled with a flood of confused and reactionary commentary like the Google Maps lady stuck doing donuts in a parking lot. There’s been a ton of posts and comments talking about what happened, what actually happened, why people are upset, and why it matters. On Gamasutra, Christian Nutt wrote a great summation of the situation and why it’s a problem, from the perspective of a man who’s played the game and who happens to be married to another man. (Except in Tomodachi Life, in which he’s married to a woman).
Today, Nintendo released a statement that gave a sincere apology for the situation and a pledge to work harder at inclusivity going forward. Really, that should be the end of it. It’d be just petulant to expect a more sweeping change to a quirky novelty title, Nintendo’s a notoriously conservative company that has a lot deeper problems with racial and gender inclusivity than this one game, and people got the chance to raise awareness of how much they care about the issue and why it’s important to them. There’s not a lot more left to say. Making it out to be a controversy is itself a big part of the problem; it’s something so “normal” that it should never be considered controversial.
But… it’s rare for a video game to drop such a perfect metaphor into our laps, so I’ve got to give my take.
No Weird Stuff
Above is a promotional video from Nintendo for Tomodachi Life, which shows Mii versions of Nintendo executives talking in their strangely-pitched computer-generated voices, singing and dancing in stage shows, racing as snails with human heads, taking to the runway in fashion shows, and hitting on female Nintendo video game characters. “Just think of all the crazy match-ups that can happen in this game.” But don’t think of too many crazy match-ups, because Nintendo doesn’t want any weird stuff. Like dudes hitting on other dudes.
On Polygon, Samantha Allen writes that Nintendo’s statement was rooted in hatred and bigotry, pure and simple. The rest of her piece is fine, because it talks about the heteronormative concepts that lead to a statement like “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary:” it assumes that straight people falling in love and getting married is perfectly natural and normal, but gay people doing the same thing is a statement. But I do take issue with the claim that it’s rooted in hatred and bigotry; frankly, I think calling it “hatred” is lazy.
Hatred is easier to deal with. If someone proves himself to be a hateful, unrepentant homophobe, you can just say “sheesh, what an asshole” and write him off. Same with an arrogant bigot who’s convinced that he’s calmly and rationally proven that your concerns don’t matter as much as his own. But Nintendo’s initial statement comes from a place of more subtle and systematic prejudice. It’s like the aunt who insists on calling your boyfriend your “friend,” and who keeps trying to set you up with a nice girl. (Note: purely a hypothetical in my case).
That’s not to say that it’s benign or that it should be given a pass, but just that it comes from a different place. And you have to handle it differently. Otherwise, you just make it seem like the full-on, recalcitrant bigots have all the numbers on their side.
Of course, it’s also not to say that the reaction is overblown or the issue shouldn’t be a big deal. That seems to be the most common reaction on message boards: why do LGBT types/liberals/liberal LGBT types/”social justice warriors” have to turn every little thing into some big issue? One of the comment threads was from a guy who made that exact point and qualified it by pointing out that he’s bisexual; apparently he’s the Lorax, and he speaks for the LGBTs. But instead of reinforcing his point, his mention of his own sexuality just underscored why one aspect of a deliberately silly game could blow up into such a big deal in the first place: it comes from the assumption that what’s important to one person is important to everyone else, and that one person’s experiences are a good indicator of everyone else’s experiences. (Besides, any gay man can tell you that bisexuals don’t actually exist).
Christian’s take on the game and Nintendo’s response describes how the struggle for LGBT rights has turned personal relationships into political issues: “…living, for us, is an inherently political act.” That’s true, but I think a lot of people miss the fact that the political aspect is a side effect, not a goal. When someone suggests that gay rights activists put forward their most “straight-friendly” relationships in a bit of political theater, it exposes their own biases and prejudices: theater has to have an audience, and the gays must be trying to sell an idea to the normals. That takes an already marginalized group and marginalizes them even further; anything you want is defined in terms of how it affects me. So you look at a lesbian couple in their 80s and consider how their marriage would impact the civil rights struggle and its longer-term effects on fundamental societal institutions. You don’t consider the simple fact that a couple who’d been together for decades would want to get married, and what a travesty it is that they couldn’t.
That’s why Nintendo’s first response was spectacularly tone-deaf, as opposed to outright “hateful.” Hate says that anything outside of my experience is wrong; cluelessness and callousness say that anything outside of my experience is weird. It assumes one version of “normal” as the default, and then assumes that anything that falls outside of that is an aberration. So a guy chasing after a girl on a beach is just how romance works. A guy chasing after another guy would be making social commentary.
We’ve seen this over and over again: heterosexual marriages are normal, so gay “marriages” must be a political agenda. Straight relationships among young people are about romance and commitment, but gay relationships must be all about sex. Action heroes are men, so having female action heroes must be an attempt to defy conventional gender roles. Leading characters are white, so introducing a non-white protagonist means the story must be about race and take advantage of the fact that he’s “exotic.”
Based solely on that Nintendo Direct video, and the amount of time spent with characters hitting on and fighting over each other, it’d be reasonable for anyone to assume that it’s Nintendo who declared that romantic relationships and marriages are a big part of this silly game. And it’s Nintendo who asserted that having characters who represent your appearance and your personality is a big part of the game. But then we’re supposed to believe that it’s the LGBT contingent who are turning it into an issue simply by pointing out that we’re not represented?
And the reason it’s such a great metaphor is that in video games, much as in real life, gay relationships are on by default. 99.9% of games don’t care about gender, so the only way you can prevent two characters of the same gender from pairing up is to explicitly forbid it. In the US, the only people who are “redefining marriage” are the ones who have been going in state by state, taking the idea of an institution that everyone understands, and appending “unless you’re gay.” In Tomodachi Life, the team had to explicitly make the effort to ensure that only characters of opposite genders would fall in love and get married. So who’s the one making such a big deal? It’s not the LGBT people in the audience, the ones who fell in love with someone of the same gender not to rock your world and defy your notions of conventional relationships, but because it’s simply normal to them.
Just Don’t Call It Woohoo
The effort it takes to allow for gay relationships is simply not to forbid it. The Sims is the first game I encountered that allowed this, and it could even tell I was gay before I could. I’ve told this story before, but I can’t remember if I have on this blog, so excuse the possible repetition:
In addition to letting you create your own characters and houses from scratch, The Sims also gives you several Maxis-generated families to start with. One of these in the first game was the “Roomies,” two women who were, according to the description, “new in town and looking to make friends.” I decided to create a “family” of two guys in the same neighborhood, who’d meet the girls, they’d all fall in love and get married, and pursue the music career. It’d be just like ABBA. I made the guys — “Tubbs,” because he dressed like a Miami Vice character, and “Logan,” because he dressed like a Sandman from Logan’s Run — and moved them into a house together, then had them start chatting with each other to build their relationship.
It turned out that the guys hit it off really well. I’d start a conversation between them, and they’d spend the next hour of game time just chatting with each other and sharing their dreams. They advanced from “friends” to “best friends,” and eventually got so close I started to wonder whether they’d seen combat together. Eventually, in addition to the conversational options, a new option appeared: “Give back rub.” What’s the worst that could happen? I thought. Nothing wrong with a dude giving his bro a completely consensual, heterosexual back rub.
But that’s when the hearts started appearing over their heads. I’d done it. It was my fault, because I’d given them permission. I’d somehow, completely inadvertently, unlocked a whole range of romantic options for the guys. And, I admit, I was “curious.” It’s just one night, after all, and it’s not like they’ll be locked into this as some kind of lifestyle choice, and I’ve already got a couple of very nice ladies set up for them, and well, why doesn’t this really seem all that weird to me?
My Exodus International-style attempts to get the guys back on track ended, predictably, in disaster. They preferred talking with each other and occasionally making out to talking with the Roomies. Tubbs, as it turned out, was progressive enough to be comfortable with bisexuality, and he quickly hit it off with one of the ladies. Logan didn’t want any part of it, though, and worse than that, he was crazy jealous. Tubbs’s ex-gay conversion started to get hot and heavy, and Logan reacted by slapping him, crying for a bit, and then going into the kitchen to make dinner. Because it was the original The Sims, though, using a stove meant instant suicide. A fire started, everyone panicked, and Logan was consumed by flame. A fittingly William Friedkin-esque end to the whole affair.
When a Sim dies, the game gives you a crematory urn that you can place in the backyard to turn into a grave. I did that, and Tubbs basically ruined the entire night with all his grieving. He abandoned the Roomies, choosing instead to go to the backyard and cry over Logan’s grave. His new girlfriend got bored, then came to the backyard to cheer him up. He was unconsolable at first, but eventually started to come around. Completely autonomously, she asked him to dance, and the two danced on his dead boyfriend’s grave. The game had let me consciously and subconsciously experiment with relationships, play around with the idea of what’s “normal,” and even push the characters towards a darkly comic moral retribution. All before I was ready to come out or was even able to recognize that coming out and being comfortable with myself was even an option.
(When I first told this story to my ex-boyfriend, his response: “Your first sign you were gay should’ve been when you bought a new video game and immediately wanted to re-create ABBA.”)
That’s an example of why representation is such a big deal in games and movies: it is, for lack of a better term, a “safe space” to see your own conception of what’s “normal” be abstracted and simplified and experimented with. The realization that this doesn’t seem that weird to me was a calming reassurance that “coming out” didn’t mean I’d have to transform into one of the bizarre stereotypes I’d always seen on TV and in movies. The game was effectively saying that it didn’t care one way or the other, so why should I? In retrospect, even the swift moral retribution for Logan’s wickedness was helpful: over the years I’d come up with so many possible nightmare scenarios of what would happen if anyone found out My Horrible Secret, that seeing one played out so broadly comic and cartoonishly helped defused the tension. It’s a big deal because it reminds players that it’s not a big deal.
Of course, somebody at EA or Maxis came along with The Sims 2 and effectively ruined it. They added the option of marriage — strictly non-denominational, of course — by giving a Sim new options for Sims with a high enough relationship level: “Propose” an “Join.” Two Sims could “Join” in a nice ceremony with all their Sim friends and it’d form a lifelong memory and a new spousal relationship.
But only if they were of opposite genders. Everything else was just as gender-agnostic as before, but if you had two Sims of the same gender, they could only “Join Union.” Every aspect of the relationship was exactly the same (except for the possibility of pregnancy from sex, of course) but they explicitly made the effort to distinguish real marriages of semi-autonomous computer-generated polygonal people with the politically-motivated civil unions of gay Sims. Of all the boneheaded decisions that EA has made over the years, that’s simultaneously one of the subtlest with least pragmatic impact, and one of the absolute worst with enough symbolism attached to wipe out almost all my goodwill towards the series. The beauty of The Sims was that it made no value judgments. The insult of The Sims 2 was that it said this distinction matters so much that we’ll go out of our way to differentiate it.
Of course, The Sims isn’t a completely free-love society; there are explicit rules against macking on underage Sims or blood relatives, for instance. And while Sims will take care of a lot of stuff on their own, they won’t do stuff like initiate romantic relationships, so players who want to play with the rule #nohomo will only ever see gay Sims if they create them themselves. Even after reading Christian’s description of Tomodachi Life, I still don’t have a clear idea of how autonomous it is, if at all — if the player doesn’t actually have control over which Miis fall in love and get married, then there is a technical question of how you implement that. If a Mii representing a straight player just automatically gets married to a Mii of the same gender, that’s really no better than Christian’s example of his Mii getting married to a woman.
But whatever the details, it’s not an unsolvable problem, because plenty of other games have solved it. And the key is that anybody who claims it’d take a ton of effort is either lying or mis-informed. If a Bioware game needs to write a whole plot line and dialogue for one of its established characters falling in love with an established character of the same gender, then that takes some effort. In a game where players create the characters and decide what they do, then it’s as simple as “don’t forbid it.”
And if you are going to make the effort to exclude me, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that you’re the one doing it. Don’t assume that what’s perfectly normal for me is actually some politically motivated social commentary. And don’t act as if removing the restrictions that exclude me is the same thing as catering to some special interest.
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.
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.
Any time there’s an attempt to hold someone responsible for his actions — whether it’s Orson Scott Card, Dan Cathy, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, Brendan Eich of Mozilla, or just some random jackass who refuses to bake a cake or take wedding photos — there inevitably follows a backlash, a debate on how far we’re willing to take this whole “equality” thing, exactly.
Debate is good. If for no other reason, it deprives the remaining hold-outs against progress of their last, feeble attempts to seed doubt that we’re making progress in the right direction: the claim that as conditions improve for minorities, the voice of the majority is getting silenced. Debating, without simply resorting to name-calls of “bigot” or “misogynist” or “racist,” will gradually reveal that it’s not enough just to have a voice. You have to be saying something worth listening to.
On the surface, it’d seem like these debates are over the exact issues we should be concerned about: genuine inclusiveness and equality. Conservatives can go on lamenting how their rights and values are being chipped away, thinking of society as nothing more than a never-ending, cyclical struggle that does nothing more than shift power from one group to another. Liberals are supposed to be better than that. We can’t just be concerned with lifting up minorities at the expense of everyone else; we have to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.
But the result is the opposite, because these arguments are always based on a false equivalence: that a disenfranchised group being blatantly and systematically deprived of the most fundamental institutions of society is no more severe than a rich person potentially losing a source of income as a result of his own decisions. I don’t believe it’s always done deliberately or even consciously, but regardless of intent, the outcome is the same. It says, “Yeah, of course I believe in equality… but there are people out there who are being severely inconvenienced!”
Just the Same
In the week following Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, William Saletan wrote a series of articles on Slate.com, defending Eich and calling out liberal hypocrisy. Without exception, they’re all variations on arguments that have been used to rationalize or justify Proposition 8, or to label the boycotts of Card or Chick-fil-a as nothing more than intolerance.
“Purge the Bigots” is an attempt at satire with all the nuance and insight of the Wikipedia entry for the Cliff’s Notes version of A Modest Proposal. In what he seems to consider an incontrovertible mic-drop of an argument, he presents several charts listing all the donations to Proposition 8 from employees of various different companies. In terms of arguments undermining gay rights, this one’s a two-fer: on the one hand, it says, “Lots of people voted for or donated to Proposition 8; if a majority of people were in favor of this thing, can it really be as objectively evil as some are trying to make it out to be?” On the other, it’s the same “defense” of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-a that was raised and summarily dismissed dozens of times: “Why single this one out? I can’t possibly boycott every single company on the suspicion that it might have a bigoted employee.”
“Is Brendan Eich Queer?” is a link-baiting headline attached to the argument that maybe Eich is one of the “good ones.” By all accounts, he always treated LGBT people fairly. Isn’t it possible for someone to be a “social conservative” and not a raging bigot and homophobe?
The most frustrating, and the reason I started writing this post in the first place, is “Brendan Eich and the New Moral Majority”. (At the risk of stating the obvious: great band name). Saletan quotes three writers justifying Eich’s resignation due to his being a liability to the image of the corporation and being at odds with “community standards.” Saletan then exclaims, j’accuse, les homos! by pointing out how the exact same concerns over image and community standards have been used to justify firing or otherwise discriminating against gay employees. This proves that the public pressure put on Eich was nothing more than a blatantly hypocritical witch hunt.
At the end of the post, Saletan makes a passing concession to the idea that okay maybe it’s not exactly the same thing:
Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees. He caused dissension. He made colleagues uncomfortable. He scared off customers. He created a distraction. He didn’t fit.
It used to be social conservatives who stood for the idea that companies could and should fire employees based on the “values” and “community standards” of their “employees, business partners and customers.” Now it’s liberals. Or, rather, it’s people on the left who, in their exhilaration at finally wielding corporate power, have forgotten what liberalism is.
Here’s the problem: it’s not that people on the left have forgotten what liberalism is. It’s that a lot of people on the left, right, and middle have apparently forgotten exactly what is at stake here.
The key issue justifying Eich’s resignation has little if anything to do with “community standards.” That is nothing more than bullshit moral relativism, the idea that liberal tolerance means that there’s no such thing as absolute morality. Liberalism doesn’t mean “anything goes,” nor does it mean that right and wrong are simply a matter of who’s in charge. There are still things that are objectively wrong. One of those things is donating a thousand bucks to make sure that your neighbors are stripped of their dignity and their opportunity to take part in the same institutions that every person is inherently entitled to.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Gay Marriage vs Marriage Equality and The Good Guys vs The Bigots
Saletan makes it clear — and not in the “I have lots of black friends” way — that while defending Eich, he’s still a supporter of gay marriage. None of us have any reason to doubt that; it’s not even in question. But I will say that while Saletan supports “gay marriage,” these pieces suggest that he doesn’t support actual marriage equality.
The distinction isn’t just a matter of politically correct name-wrangling, an attempt to shout “bigot” whenever somebody uses the “wrong” term. Instead, it defines how we think about the issue. “Gay marriage” is a special interest. It describes it as an attempt to create something that didn’t exist before, to redefine an institution, to encroach on something to which we were never entitled. Opponents of actual marriage equality have spent years using this artificial distinction for fear-mongering and as a stalling tactic. If they win, consider everything that you lose. It’s the kind of constant one-upsmanship that leads someone to say, for instance, that advances in gay rights have resulted in the left “finally wielding corporate power.”
“Marriage Equality” isn’t just more inclusive, it’s more accurate. It’s not a special interest fighting for dominance; it’s an attempt to guarantee that everyone is entitled to the same things. Rational people can still have differing opinions as to the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a new social institution; trying to argue against the equality of everyone will always be irrational.
That distinction is crucial, because it’s what keeps this a progressive issue as opposed to simply a liberal or conservative one. (Let’s not forget that the argument that stable, mutually respectful relationships are crucial to a healthy society is an inherently conservative argument). Supporting “gay rights” as distinct from civil rights dooms us to repeat the same decades-long struggle over and over again, every time some new special interest group decides they want to be treated like human beings. It means that the Civil Rights movement is distinct from abolition is distinct from the feminist movement is distinct from women’s suffrage is distinct from transgender rights and so on.
So “Eich isn’t all that bad a guy” might be true. But it’s irrelevant. Good people can still do bad things. Chick-fil-a does a lot of great stuff for the community; Dan Cathy’s attitude towards marriage equality is still dead wrong. I have little problem dismissing Orson Scott Card as an unrepentant bigoted asshole, and Phil Robertson’s speeches about homosexuals as perverts give me little hesitation at dismissing him as an ignorant bigot. But Eich, on the other hand, has made several statements about the importance of workplace equality, and he apologized for “pain he caused” (in vague terms, which I’ll get to later). That’s all fine, but only if you’re trying to assign some kind of D&D alignment to people, with the Lawful Goods against the Chaotic Bigots.
What Eich has never done, as far as I’m aware, is directly address one key fact: he donated $1000 to make sure that I couldn’t get married.
And I don’t think that it’s petty revenge or vindictiveness or an unnecessary witch hunt to remind people how seriously fucked up that is.
Saletan links to an article on Slate by Mark Joseph Stern, which attempts to remind people just how toxic and outright degrading the Proposition 8 campaign was. Saletan mentions it in passing, to give Eich a pass for having neither written nor approved the ads. Apparently he’s absolved of all responsibility because he only helped pay for them. Maybe the implications just weren’t made sufficiently clear as he was cutting the check: you do know that this is a movement to write blatant discrimination against a minority into our state’s constitution, right?
But for me, $1000 is still a pretty big deal. It’s the difference between opinion and personal conviction, and not coincidentally, it’s the point where I start to take it personally. When there’s been an earthquake or a typhoon, I’ve only been able to give about $100 to the Red Cross. So however much I wanted to see strangers recover from a natural disaster, Brendan Eich wanted to see strangers relegated to second-class citizen status ten times more.
Having to re-watch those pro-Proposition 8 ads is a reminder — at least for those of us who believe everyone deserves empathy, not just Eich — of what it was like to be told for thirty seconds every few minutes that your personal relationships were a matter of open debate and a crisis for our society. And their justification was the fear that they might have to explain to normal children that you exist.
Just to make sure our outrage scales are all properly calibrated: are we all still aware that this is being compared to a rich guy possibly losing a source of income, not as a result of who he is, but as a result of a decision he chose to make?
Saletan sarcastically suggests that by unfairly singling out Eich, we’re not doing our due diligence in rooting out all the people who financially supported Prop 8. With all due respect, fuck that. It was bad enough being assaulted with paid advertisements telling us “You are different and lesser” and “You’re corrupting our children” without having to seek that shit out.
And that’s where the idea of “community standards” comes back into play. Not in the sense, as Saletan suggests, that Eich is merely a victim of the changing tide of public opinion, suddenly finding himself persecuted for happening to be on the losing side of a culture war. I mean “community standards” in the sense that we’re all actually part of a community, secure in the knowledge that we’re all working together and all treating each other with mutual respect. You don’t have to be shouting “bigot” to acknowledge that it’s damaging to that sense of community to know that your neighbor, colleague, or worst of all, boss has actively worked to degrade and diminish you as a person.
All through the course of Proposition 8, it was a semi-comforting lie to believe it can’t happen here. It must’ve come from aggressive LDS church leaders in Utah, or some homogenous group of politically-manipulated conservatives down in the central valley, or some broad demographic in LA or San Diego who were manipulated by their church into believing that people getting married was somehow a threat to their religious beliefs. But in the San Francisco Bay Area? In an industry that’s inherently progressive? Impossible.
While we’re rending our garments in lamentation of how Eich has been turned into a social pariah, why not take just a second to consider what a shock it was for all the thousands and thousands of people to find themselves the victim of an orchestrated attack? To have their families put up for public vote? While we’re pointing to Mozilla’s vapid PR statements of a commitment to equality in the workplace, why not consider what it’d be like to have to wonder which of your colleagues and bosses are paying lip service to equality while simultaneously campaigning to intrude on your personal life?
It was bad enough seeing a bunch of people happily lining up to eat chicken sandwiches in honor of making sure I’d never have any hope of getting married. Why would I go looking for that kind of disrespect?
Believe me, I would much prefer not knowing. I’d prefer to go on thinking of it as some fictitious and faceless mob of Mormon-Catholic-Baptist farmers who’ve never actually spoken to a gay person, than to be confronted with the knowledge that my boss is saying, “Yeah, your job is safe because it’s legally required. But whatever you’ve got going on at home, don’t you dare call it a ‘marriage.'”
But after I do find out, then what?
I’m Glad That’s Over!
It seems that a lot of Eich’s defenders are walking away from the overturn of DOMA and DADT and Prop 8, wiping their hands after a job well done. While it is becoming increasingly clear that opposing marriage equality in the United States is a losing battle, the battle still isn’t over by a long shot.
A majority of states still have constitutional amendments banning marriage equality. And because of this insistence on “community standards” and moral relativism, each state is going to have to go through the same degrading process, with couples who’ve been together for decades having to explain why they’re entitled to the same things everyone else takes for granted. (All while the people introducing these constitutional amendments insist that it’s gay people who are “redefining” marriage. Even after all this time, the blatant hypocrisy still astounds me).
Every time a boycott is proposed or a controversy is brought to light, there’s the sentiment that people aren’t really interested in equality; they want reparations. It’s not enough to secure equal rights for gay people; we have to persecute anyone for even believing that homosexuality is a sin. As our friend Ross Douthat whined: “the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Liberals have gone from fighting for equality to forming posses to root out throughtcrimes.
It’s clearly bullshit. It’s an argument based on the idea that everything is about winning or losing, and not about everyone being treated fairly. And I’ll reiterate to Mr. Saletan: being fired for who you are is nothing like being pressured to resign for something you’ve done. If someone’s mugging me, we’re not having a difference of opinion as to who should own my wallet; I’m being attacked. It’s not petty vindictiveness for me to hold the attacker responsible and do whatever I can to make sure I’m not attacked again.
I don’t have any interest in pointing a finger at Eich and shouting “bigot;” even if he were an outright bigot, there are way too many of those to point at. Any deeply-held personal grudge I’ve got against Eich has a lot more to do with dynamic typing than anything else. But that doesn’t mean he should be given a pass. He did a shitty thing, and he responded to it in a shitty way.
There’s been the argument that Eich’s donation to Prop 8 was completely irrelevant to his job. You could make a convincing case that that’s true for the CTO of a tech company, although again, consider going into work knowing that your boss donated his personal money towards invalidating your marriage. But it’s absolutely absurd for intelligent adults to suggest that it’s irrelevant to being the CEO of a company. Company image and vision is what CEOs do.
And it’s the CEO’s job to respond to things like this. Again, to my knowledge, Eich has never directly addressed his support of Proposition 8. At first he said nothing, then he tried to act as if it weren’t anyone’s business. He gave some vague, meaningless comments about equality. Eventually he said he wanted to “express his sorrow at having caused pain,” in an apology which was enough to convince Sullivan. (But then, Sullivan is the one who admitted to weeping at Obama’s non-committal politically convenient flip-flop, which only happened after Joe Biden “gaffed” by displaying actual conviction). There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of Eich’s apology. It still doesn’t answer the question.
I think people are entitled to an explanation. That’s part of why we respect the secret ballot but insist that financial donations are public. It’s why opponents of marriage equality always want the issue settled via referendum instead of by so-called “activist” judges — because judges are obliged to explain themselves. I want to know exactly why Eich supported such a blatantly discriminatory proposition, and what’s to keep him from doing the same in the future.
If Saletan’s “not such a bad guy” argument is to be believed, and there’s a wide gulf between someone who yells about “faggots” and someone who’s just a social conservative, then it’s even more pressing. Because if that’s the case, then in Eich’s mind, supporting something as obviously wrong as Proposition 8 was not at all contradictory with his public claims about equality. That’s the kind of thing his employees deserve to know. He needs to either support his decisions, or recant them. If he can’t handle or refuses to address this issue, then he has no business being CEO of such a visible company.
When I started writing this post several days ago, I was going to use Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-a as a counter-example. I still think Cathy’s an asshole, but I was going to say that at least he took a stand that Eich never did. He ended years of speculation about Chick-fil-a’s financial donations by saying, directly, this is what I believe and this is why we did it. A company that sacrifices sales for the sake of staying closed on the Sabbath is, if nothing else, a company that stands by its convictions. So, because Cathy apparently exists solely to foil me at every step, he cowardly back-pedaled on that. He tried to give a folksy, “I’ll just leave that to the politicians!” quote and reversed the only thing he did during that whole fiasco that would’ve earned him any respect at all.
Cathy believes he can scurry back into hiding, believing that the problem isn’t the harm he does, but people finding out about the harm he does. Eich had the opportunity to address this issue head-on, but felt as if he didn’t owe it to anyone. He felt that his political opinions aren’t any of our business, even though our relationships are totally his business to dissolve and deride.
Any discussion about social justice or civil rights will inevitably trend towards hyperbole, so there are plenty who think this is much ado about nothing. That completely undermines how shocking — crushing — it was to find out that Proposition 8 had passed. (And on the same day Obama was elected, because somebody in control loves poetic irony). It had seemed impossible. There was a lot of heated rhetoric, and of course it was demoralizing to go through a nasty campaign season having so much hatred directed towards you, but there was no way it could actually pass. Not in California, of all places.
Something that blatantly discriminatory doesn’t pass just by virtue of a state full of Phil Robertsons and Rick Santorums running to the polls. Yes, there are tons of outright bigots and homophobes, but you don’t win an election with just one end of the bell curve. It takes the support of all the people who can rationalize what they’re doing, who can say that it’s not blatantly discriminatory, that it’s justified, that it’s necessary, that they’re the ones who are being attacked.
To prevent such a gross violation of justice as Prop 8 from happening again, and to overturn it in the majority of states where those gross violations are still in effect, you have to hold people accountable for what they’re doing. You have to dispel their bullshit rationalizations and justifications and address it in simple terms of right and wrong. You don’t do that by telling them that their opinions take precedence over someone else’s freedom. You don’t do that by pretending that their inconvenience is just as bad as the actual degradation they’ve inflicted on others.
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
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:
Somebody who considers himself or herself “politically incorrect” says something offensive.
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?”
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.
Whenever a TV celebrity says something offensive, there’s no shortage of coverage on the internet and jokes on Twitter. So I don’t really need to get into a tirade about all the obviously stupid aspects of the Duck Dynasty guy’s interview with GQ in which he talks about anuses and vaginas, compares homosexuality to bestiality, and says that black people were a lot happier before the Civil Rights movement gave them a sense of entitlement.
Except… except the whole thing is so densely-packed with absurd wrongness that even thinking about it for a fraction of a second reveals a dozen new ridiculous details foretelling the collapse of Western Civilization. For instance, it wasn’t until I was just now writing the sentence above that I made the connection and fully appreciated the absurdity of a hard-workin’ good ol’ boy just statin’ his mind in an interview with Gentlemen’s Quarterly.
But I can say what I personally find most offensive about it. It’s not the casual comparison of homosexuality to perversion, since that’s been going on for decades, and we’ve heard it plenty of times already. It’s not the bald-faced offensiveness of comparing the Civil Rights movement to entitlement, since that’s just a combination of the matter-of-fact racism I’ve unfortunately been hearing tossed around since I was a kid, plus the Tea Party-era attempts to disguise bigotry and classism as fiscal conservatism. It’s not really the hypocrisy of the A&E Network for profiting from a bunch of self-described “rednecks” who’ve been outspoken bigots, suddenly developing a conscience after four years, because come on: reality television. It’s not the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin calling for freedom of speech when a television celebrity is fired for making obviously racist and homophobic comments, after she was curiously silent when a television pundit is forced to resign after implying that someone should shit in Palin’s mouth as a means of pointing out how casually she’s trivialized the genuine horrors of slavery. And it’s not even the hypocrisy of anti-gay sentiment coming from a bunch of people who are even more fixated with beards than any gay man I’ve ever met with an actual, openly-acknowledged beard fetish.
Persecutin’ ‘n’ Manipulatin’
No, the most surprisingly offensive thing to me is this Facebook update from Sarah Palin. Now, to be fair, I have to give Palin some credit for her remarkable evolution over the years. When she was picked from obscurity to be a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, she was clearly out of her element, a local politician thrust not only into the ruthless world of Washington politics, but the national media. But instead of fading into obscurity, she fought to establish herself as a vapid media opportunist, and then a laughably dismissible clown, before finally coming into her own as a full-fledged live-action cartoon. And in her carefully-constructed Facebook update:
Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.
she actually writes out “hatin'”.
The attempt to equate freedom of speech with freedom from consequence? Please, that’s not even Bullshit 101. That’s Remedial Bullshit. When I think about how much time has been wasted over the years as smart people have tried to explain how the First Amendment works to people using their willful ignorance for political manipulation… we might’ve even found evidence showing that global warming is manmade, or discovered a vaccine that doesn’t cause autism.
The calculated use of “intolerant” in an attempt to throw back progressives’ own language in their faces, to suggest that it’s the people spewing out bigotry who are really the ones being persecuted? Yawn. Seen it. It’s been years since Ann Coulter lamented the intolerant society that would no longer allow her to call John Edwards a faggot. No offense, Ms. Palin, but you’re strictly amateur class when compared to that.
But the master stroke — and this, keep in mind, is coming from a guy who regularly types “y’all” in emails without thinking twice about it — is encompassing decades’ worth of faux-populist, faux-conservative, faux-Christian, faux-American media manipulation into a single apostrophe. It would be impossible to come up with a more perfectly false and hypocritical defense of not just Duck Dynasty, but the entire state of pop culture that allowed a show like Duck Dynasty to become so popular.
Just a Good Ol’ Boy, Never Meanin’ No Harm
Let’s all be clear, here: The Official Statement from the Robertson Family, complete with its photo of multiple generations of abandoned wives and children As Seen on TV, all united in their belief of Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech and freedom of religion, all devoted to their faith in the teachings of the Bible, standing strong, Job-like, in the face of a society that has lost sight of the simple values of honest talk and brotherly love — that’s on a website currently hosting a pop-up ad for the Bank of America, special holiday hours for their store, and booking info for the entire family, with separate sections for the Wives and Teens, each with a glamour shot and a bio.
In other words, these sumbitches are crazy rich. Just like Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, and Paula Deen, and Dan Cathy. And acknowledging that these persecuted free thinkers have more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime isn’t an attack on the wealthy, any more than saying “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christmas. But it does make the “simple gifts” schtick awfully hard to swallow. It’s Boss Hogg trying to pass himself off as Jed Clampett. “Lemme jus’ head on down to the cement pond and record the latest social media video promoting our line of greeting cards.”
When I started growing my beard out last year, I heard enough cracks about Duck Dynasty that I watched an episode to see what all the fuss was about. (It’s been going on for at least four seasons, apparently). And it was, unsurprisingly, the biggest load of faux-populist bullshit I’d seen on television. It wasn’t even the orchestrated train wreck cash-grab that was Here Comes Honey Boo Boo; as horrible as that was, you still got the sense that everybody involved was aware that it was just a modern-day freak show, the money all but visibly changing hands and going towards a “college fund” that would eventually be used for medical bills, treatment for addiction, and psychological therapy.
No, Duck Dynasty was worse, because it was an hour of a bunch of people reminding the ever-present video cameras that they were nothing more than God-fearin’ simple folk.
Growing up in Georgia, I spent decades immersed in this crap. I’ve been to the studios of The 700 Club and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL. I’ve seen countless hours of Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard. In college I lived in a house in which the Nashville Network played virtually non-stop, with the slickly-produced videos interrupted with interviews with the self-described rednecks and cowboys who weren’t no different from nobody else. Lately, I’ve been seeing videos in the mall food court that are practically indistinguishable from the ones I saw 20 years ago: add a steel guitar and some “haw haw haw ‘Merica” twang to a mass-produced pop song and all of a sudden you’re celebrating down-home values.
To be clear: I’d never, ever fault or criticize somebody for wanting to believe in all that. You’d have to be a real asshole to mock the most fundamental of good values while you’re condemning the manipulative people who are corrupting those values. It’s that manipulation that I’m criticizing.
I Will Always Love Dolly Parton
One of the most common reactions to this whole nonsense — apart from the depressingly predictable attempts to martyr a bigot with an “I Stand With Phil Robertson” movement — is “Well, who’s really surprised?” These guys are from the South after all. Of course they’re “Bible-thumpers,” and naturally they’d be racist homophobes.
Speaking as a southerner, I’m sick of people passing off their racist bullshit as part of their Southern Heritage. Speaking as a Christian, I’m tired of people passing off their own bigotry as being in any way Christ-like. These clowns don’t speak for me, and I want them to stop acting as if they do. Each time they’re caught doing something patently offensive, the response is always, always, that they don’t care much for “political correctness,” and they’re just saying what everybody’s thinking but is too afraid to say out loud. And each time one of these things blows up in their face, it should become clear that “No, you’re not saying what everybody’s thinking. You’re just an asshole.”
To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to a logical analysis of the objective merits of anuses vs. vaginas. But I am just gay enough to think that Dolly Parton is one of the best people there is. She has absolutely made a fortune out of taking the “simple Appalachian folk” concept and cranking it up to eleven. There’s no doubt that she built a multimedia empire — including not just some greeting card line but a theme park — based on basic values and humble beginnings. She’s unquestionably got a carefully-constructed public persona based on an accent, a body, and just the right amount of self-deprecation.
The difference is that there’s no bullshit there. In everything I’ve ever seen, she’s up front about how different her life is after all the hit songs, and the movies, and the money, and the plastic surgery. She says that she’s still got the same core set of values that she’s always had, but then she actually follows through on it. And even though she’d have every opportunity to fall back on feeble excuses based on her age or her upbringing or the place where she was born, she accepts everybody in her audience. She could totally get away with the “that’s just the way I was raised” excuse for bigotry, but for as long as I’ve been aware of her, she’s always been contemporary and always been inclusive.
It’s the difference between selling honesty and actually being honest. And the difference between “politically correct” and just plain “correct.”
So Sarah Palin is welcome to descend further into self-parody. And the whole Robertson clan can shove their redneck martyrdom bullshit up their own illogical anuses, and fade back into wealthy obscurity. Along with all the other aspects of the South that are better left forgotten.
There’s probably no stopping people from trying to turn a region into a commodity. If people are still dressing up as Centurions for photo opportunities around the Coliseum in Rome, thousands of years later, there’s probably going to be no end to “We’re po’ but proud” merchandise in my lifetime. It’ll be annoying and as authentic as a Cracker Barrel gift shop, but it’s ultimately harmless. What’s not harmless is trying to pull the worst aspects of the last 200 years as an inseparable and even noble part of it. I want to get to the point where, when somebody says he’s a southerner, you can’t make any assumptions other than his attitude towards gravy, sweet potatoes, and how much sugar should go into cornbread. (Answer: absolutely none).
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.
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.
Last week, Chris Sprouse withdrew himself from the first issue of the upcoming series Adventures of Superman, in which he was originally going to illustrate a story written by Orson Scott Card. That decision effectively put an end to the anger and indignation a lot of comics readers (myself included) felt at seeing DC Comics put a spotlight on the work of a virulent, outspoken homophobe like Card. It started a whole new wave of indignation from people on the internet who insist they’re very invested in the First Amendment.
But when we do see [Superman] for the very first time, these are the first words that appear directly below, the first epithet applied to this newly-minted creation as it was unleashed upon the world:
Champion of the Oppressed.
There it is, coded into his creative DNA from the very beginning: He fights for the little guy.
And that’s why this bugs me, and why I’m not the least bit curious about what Card’s Superman might be like.
DC Comics has handed the keys to the “Champion of the Oppressed” to a guy who has dedicated himself to oppress me, and my partner, and millions of people like us. It represents a fundamental misread of who the character is, and what he means.
(Incidentally: I think that a lot of other writers, when trying to summarize the whole story, over-sold the idea that the character of Superman has particular resonance with gay people. I don’t think he does; Weldon does a good job making it clear that Superman is everybody’s hero, and no particular group has any special or specific ownership of him. It is an interesting idea, though, that Superman is a long-lasting and purely secular symbol of goodness, truth, and justice, which could appeal to a lot of gay people who feel that religion has abandoned or betrayed them).
As for me, I’m really glad to see Card being held accountable for his statements and his actions. Even if it is just in the court of public opinion, since DC stuck with their decision to hire Card, and Sprouse distanced himself from the controversy but not Card himself. Still, blogs and comments can be enough in this case. There tends to be a kind of lazy defeatism disguised as cynicism whenever ethics meets commerce, where we hear “It’s just business!” used as an excuse for everything from giving production money & producer credit to a bigot, to publishing “speculative” fiction from a murderer.
It’s nice to see more people slowly realizing that only courts and governments are obligated to remain impartial. Commerce, on the other hand, is all about playing favorites, rewarding the people that you like and refusing to support the ones that you don’t. Anybody who tells you that’s not the case — whether it’s in regards to comics, advertising campaigns, or chicken sandwiches — has an agenda of his own.
It’s not about homophobia, or misogyny, or racism: certainly not. The people eager to defend Card, or Frank Miller, or Mark Millar, are eager to explain that the big picture is about the importance of the free exchange of ideas, even if those ideas are repugnant to us. In the past, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind and accept arguments like that at face value. I still think they’re dead wrong, but I never thought they were being duplicitous. It was just a different viewpoint and different set of priorities than my own.
But last week I started following some of the commenters on those blog posts, and the people screaming at Mark Waid on Twitter. And I was genuinely surprised to find that without exception, every single one of the people insisting that it was about freedom of speech and not homophobia, could be found elsewhere on the internet arguing against marriage equality.
And you don’t even have to look that closely, and you certainly don’t have to get into creepy invasion-of-privacy territory; it’s right there in their twitter feeds or comments on other blog posts. I’d always assumed that there was a bell curve to these discussions, with the actual outright homophobes being a relative minority, but it turns out that I’d just never bothered to actually follow up on that assumption. It’s revealing to see the free speech that free speech advocates actually engage in when they think nobody’s listening.
Am I claiming that it’s impossible that people could be arguing for Card’s freedom of speech without undermining the rights and equality of gay people? I don’t ever like to say something’s “impossible” — for instance, I’m not willing to completely rule out the possibility that a man can fly. I’ve just never seen anyone do it.
I’m not claiming that everybody who waves the freedom of speech flag is a homophobe, just that a depressing majority of them are. One obvious exception would be comic book (and occasionally video game) writer Peter David. He’s an outspoken proponent of marriage equality and gay rights in general, has been since long before it was “fashionable,” and he’s been awarded for his support. (I also just found out through a web search that Mr. David recently suffered a stroke, and his website has information on how you can help him recover and help with his medical bills).
He also wrote dialogue for a video game that was based on an IP by Orson Scott Card. A few years ago, that game created a controversy similar to that around Adventures of Superman. In response, Mr. David vehemently argued against a boycott of the game, describing the “chilling effect” that can happen when an artist’s work is punished for the views of the artist himself.
It’d be idiotic to even imply that Mr. David’s argument was homophobic, but he was still dead wrong. The problem is that it’s not possible to defend Card’s rights without undermining the rights of me and other gay people.
Obviously, there’s my right to get married without some lunatic Mormon threatening to overthrow the government. Most of the media coverage around the issue of marriage equality is phrased in terms of opinion polls and the turning tide of sentiment among particular demographics and popular votes. That can make it sound like equality is a matter of opinion, like your favorite color or whether you enjoy bacon. But the fact is that there’s a blatant inequality in the US. Thinking of it as a difference of opinion is much like asking someone’s opinion whether the Earth is flat or dinosaurs coexisted with humans. The situation is unfair; the only difference of opinion is whether you believe it’s all right that it’s unfair.
On top of that is the attempt to frame it as a question of freedom of religion — President Obama and others have been extremely careful not to offend any religious groups by asserting that adults in the United States should be able to marry the people they love. The unspoken message there, of course, is that everyone else’s right to freedom of religion trumps our right to marry.
It’s the same whenever an artist’s work raises threats of a boycott: the artist’s freedom of speech is sacrosanct! What’s unspoken is that Card’s right to say that homosexuals are weak-willed and mentally ill trumps my right to say that nobody should give money to a bigoted asshole. We’re told that by trying to silence Card, we’re killing a society that thrives on the free exchange of contrary ideas.
Bullshit. In fact, the usual response to that is to point out the basics of free speech and commerce: it’s not censorship because we’re not trying to silence opposing viewpoints, we’re merely choosing not to support them. I don’t think that’s even necessary. I sure am trying to silence Card. His writing is toxic and provides absolutely no benefit to society. He deserves to be silenced. We needn’t entertain his opinions any more than we should be encouraging those who advocate teaching creationism as science, or making anti-vaccination claims that have no basis in science.
Chastising me for advocating a boycott against a homophobe is like seeing me take an antibiotic and protesting for the right to life of the bacteria. It fails for the same reason that right-wingers’ idiotic complaints of “liberal intolerance” against bigots are idiotic: because there’s no false equivalence or moral relativism involved; there’s right and wrong. The idea that any of us are obligated to support people who are in the wrong is ludicrous. And the idea that their right to spread their toxic beliefs trumps my right to call them toxic is offensive.
So the next time I read someone making a passionate statement in defense of a bigot’s right to express himself, I’m going to think about Superman. And how often he saved Lex Luthor’s life from some disaster of Luthor’s own creation, because it was the right thing to do, and that’s what Superman’s all about. And how every time, Luthor would immediately turn around and start thinking about how to destroy Superman. And how, after the first few times I saw this same cycle repeat itself, Superman started to seem like a real chump.
I’ve been watching CNN today for coverage of the storm, since a website can’t possibly help me understand the impact of the storm like a reporter standing in a foot of water and trying to shout over the wind can. It hasn’t taken long to be reminded why I stopped watching CNN, though: they’ll take advertising from anybody, apparently.
Let’s cut taxes to reduce the deficit, which will totally work, because of reasons. And the best way to avoid being under the grip of the evil Chinese is to reduce government spending and regulation, and instead turn essential services over to the private sector. Because if we’ve learned anything, it’s that American businesses absolutely hate dealing with China, what with their billions of potential customers in a growing economy, and their enormous work force that will tolerate worse working conditions than the US at a fraction of the cost of American employees.
There are also ads from billionaire Thomas Peterffy, which run every five minutes. (And to be fair, in front of every other YouTube video, so there’s no escaping it).
Peterffy has been pissed ever since Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was cancelled, and popular sentiment has turned away from thinking that super-rich people were totally the coolest. No, the big thing in America now is “bad-mouthing success.” He wants to dispel the notion that the rich spend their money frivolously and will stop at nothing to preserve their wealth. He wants people to understand that the rich encourage people to strive for something better, and they create jobs and opportunities for the poor.
So he spent millions of dollars to put 1-minute ads all over TV and YouTube in which he rambles about how socialism is bad. And he didn’t even hire a native English speaker to do the voice-over.
I’ve had to listen as otherwise intelligent people harangue me about the perils of socialism, as if they had any notion of what actual socialism is like. I’ve had to hear people insist that they’re socially progressive, but the economy is what’s most important, and somehow the GOP is about being fiscally conservative, even though that hasn’t been true in decades. (Assuming it ever was).
And of course, now as a huge storm is ravaging the east coast, we’re all being reminded of yet another of the 1000s of ways that the ridiculous state of the Republican platform simply makes no sense — Romney’s suggestion to privatize disaster relief, because to do otherwise would be “immoral.” And still, at least half the country is going to vote for these clowns, based either on claims that wouldn’t make sense even if they were part of a coherent plan; or even worse, based on the idea that there’s no appreciable difference between the two parties.
It’s making me wonder if maybe the storms aren’t God’s vengeance on the Gays, but God’s vengeance on people who refuse to think.