Mysogyny, Labels, Isms, et cetera

Hey Weinerworkers. Long time no blog. How are you?

I try to use this blog only when I have ideas bubbling in my head that I want to get out so I can stop thinking about them. Well, today, I’ve got a big one.

Last night, I uploaded this comic. Although it’s been generally well-received, I’ve gotten a few complaints claiming the comic to be sexist. I’ve received similar complaints about other comics in the past, so I figured I should try to address it. As usual, I think I’m right, but I’d like to talk it over with the smart people who subscribe to this blog.

Before I launch in, let me lay out my bona fides:

First, to be clear, I care about the question of misogyny. As I’m sure my wife would attest, I complain about even subtle forms of misogyny. Some things I don’t like include: women lowering their apparent intelligence to attract mates; the way we complain about portrayal of female bodies in media, then turn around and tell our girls their appearance is a reflection of their character; the “soft bigotry of low expectations” we exercise on women when we say “you’re my intellectual equal, but I tolerate irrationality from you and not from males.”

Yes, I care. And, I think longterm readers know I have a good track record for espousing these views in my comics. I would do more if I didn’t worry my audience would find them overly preachy. That said, the ones I have done have gone over well, and a few have even featured in lectures and articles on gender issues.

Furthermore, my “inner circle” of friends who read my jokes in advance is about half female (it’s an odd number, but until recently was exactly even). This isn’t by design, but out of respect for the intelligence and sense of humor of good friends. I have occasionally not done comics in their original form because I’ve been convinced they are projecting a message that I don’t wish to project. I know this doesn’t necessarily cancel the possibility of me being misogynist, but I want you to understand I’m not a member of some “boys club” where we laugh about “what’s up with bitches?!” Well, unless you count just me and my wife.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the arguments.

Individual moments and characters, unless otherwise specified, do not speak for groups. When I draw a black guy, he is not the Quintessence of Black Guy. He is a guy whose 6 digit color code is about 3 centimeters from the color code I use for White Guy. I try to keep myself on the tightrope between offensive use of race (or gender, or sexuality) and tokenism, and I think I’ve done a reasonably good job. Whenever it wouldn’t change the joke to swap, I try to do so. I naturally have a tendency to draw white males, probably because I’m one of them, but I try to counterbalance. Plus, hey, it’s an easy way to differentiate characters I wasn’t skilled enough to make distinct.

If you believe the comic mentioned above is talking about Quintessence of Female, then to be consistent, you should probably say the same about the male. Is it sexist that the guy is made stupid by sex? Is it sexist that he’s a pushover? Is it racist against Trojans that they fall for the horse thing? No, of course not. Why? Because “isms” are always about whether you’re talking about the general or specific case.

Observe: It is not racist to say “if a guy walks up to my car door, I lock it.” It *is* racist to say “if a Mexican guy walks up to my car door, I lock it.” This is true, even though the second statement is a subset of the first! The difference is that we’ve taken a specific group and generalized it.

Similarly, it’s sexist if I say “women are bitches.” It’s *not* sexist if I say “people are bitches” or if I say “some women are bitches.” Again, it’s only sexist if I’m generalizing about a specific group.

Let’s look at the comic again. Does the comic claim “all women trade sex for gifts?” If it does, I’ll concede it’s sexist. But, if the comic claims (as I suppose it does) “some women trade sex for gifts” is that sexist? I can’t imagine so. The fact of the matter is that the comic doesn’t even make that claim. The comic is just a particular human interaction that occurs in reality sometimes. It’s in a comic because I thought it was funny.

I, of course, do sometimes make comics where individuals are meant to embody groups. All I can say about the difference is that I think it’s usually obvious from context. In fact, it’s not necessarily even subtle. Usually when I’m making generalized statements about groups, I have a header saying something like “the problem” or “the difference” or “what usually happens.” If you believe ALL of my comics are generalizing from the individual to the group, there is no negative “ism” you couldn’t apply to me.

I think we have a tendency to emblematize women and minorities. That is, when we see a white male character, we say “he speaks for himself.” When we see a woman and/or minority, we ask “is this individual an emblem for the group?” That is, in the former case, we assume the individual is specific. In the latter case, we assume the individual is the specific made general. I suspect this stems from a fear of offending, which is sometimes well-founded. However, if we want real equality, we have to be comfortable assuming people are just people – that (within reason) gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or anything else is incidental to the type of person you are. They are descriptive, but not prescriptive. If you’re prescribing that artists should never depict a woman being foolish or selfish or shallow, you’re asking us not to portray realistic human beings.

This is the way in which political correctness can be dangerous. When I wrote Captain Stupendous, I wanted to include a gay lead. But, I was nervous about walking that old tightrope – make sure you have a non-stereotype character, but don’t make him a saint. A couple sections having to do with “gay culture” and with the homosexual romantic interactions worried me in particular. I did my best to be funny and insulting while being respectful, and while (above all) making it clear that there is nothing *wrong* with being gay. Judging by the positive blog reactions I got, I think I succeeded.

But, if I’d been too worried about PC, I might not have included that character at all. Or, I might have had a gay character with no personality. But my attitude was this: you know a group is considered equal when you can make fun. For example, I’m Jewish and my wife is Irish. It’s considered 100% okay to mock the Irish in a stereotyped way. Why? Because in the USA at least, the idea of anti-Irish racism is so ludicrous there’s no risk of offending someone. On the other hand, you wouldn’t think of doing that to Jews because there are still people who hold anti-semitic views. But, to the extent that being a Jew has become an okay thing, a lot of it has been accomplished by actors and comedians who are comfortable mocking Jews and Jewishness. If everyone had been scared to deal with it, how would we have any progress on the issue?

In particular, I don’t like the easy use of terms like “sexist,” “racist,” or “homophobic.” I know there is some use in labels – in being able to “call a spade a spade” – but I prefer logic to semantics. It’s easy to call something “sexist.” It’s hard to explain *why* something displays an anti-female view. In all fairness, many of those who’ve written me have had the courtesy to explain their views in addition to calling me a misogynist. But, if you can explain your view, you don’t need the term.

To give an example – a while back I had a few complaints that I used the word “pussy” in a bonus comic. The claim was that this term is automatically sexist. But, given the human tendency to use fluid-emitting body parts as insults (I’ve sometimes wondered what aliens would think when we explain to them that “dickheads are assholes”), I don’t see how this particular use automatically makes me anti-woman. Plus, as I said earlier, the character saying something is not speaking for me! He’s being the character I drew.

Part of my distrust of terms comes from a funny experience I had coming out of college. Allow me a brief digression: I went to a liberal west coast school. The kind of school where many of the kids manage to be oppressed and wealthy and socialist all at the same time. A frequent topic of discussion was the “inherent sexism” of the English language. There were two main lines of argument – 1) in English, the default pronoun is “he” 2) English contains a number of words, such as “bitch” and “pussy” that combine an insult with femaleness. So as not to digress too far, suffice it to say that I think these arguments are unconvincing. At the least, they require a lot of nuanced (even statistical) explanation in order to claim them as true. That said, this sort of thing was my impression of how “sexism” worked in society.

Then I moved to LA to get into the film business. In LA, it is considered acceptable to ask a potential secretary to send headshots. In LA, it is acceptable for a casting director to say “could you play that role blacker” as a way to say “act loud and dumb.” In LA, you hear people describe homosexuals who’ve died of AIDS as having “died of assfucking.” In LA, you hear even nice people say “women can’t be funny.” These aren’t exaggerations – these are things I experienced. Having seen these things, it was incredible for me to look back at the way that, in college, we’d parse the tiny details of language to try to locate some sexism. In Hollywood, it was real sexism, without doubt or hesitation. It was people holding back women (and other groups) actively and overtly.

It occurred to me what a bizarre thing it is that “sexism” blankets both the experience I had in college AND the experience I had in LA. This is perhaps why I’m sensitive to the usage of the term, and why I prefer argument to labeling. When you call me a sexist, I don’t know if you’re calling me the I’m-not-sure-this-is-a-good-message-for-young-people kind of sexist or the women-are-things-I-wear-like-jewelry kind of sexist. If you’re calling me the first one, we can talk. If you’re calling me the second one, well… we can still talk, but I’m probably pretty irked. But if you just say “sexist” I don’t know what you’re claiming. How are we supposed to discuss it?

Now, all this is not to say that it’s impossible for someone to be a misogynist artist. I’m just saying, if we want to use this term, there has got to be a high bar for it. Otherwise, we’re limiting how intelligent the discussion can be. To give a funny example: I was once told that I always portray women as either the passive group being degraded, or the cruel group hurting other people. I considered whether this was fair until I realized it was tantamount to saying “women are always victims or victimizers.” This is comedy, lady. There are no other people. Let’s make sure we mean “misogynist” or “sexist” in the full sense of the term’s usage before using it.

And, if you are going to use it on me, ask yourself some questions: Have I systematically portrayed women in the way you disliked in a particular comic? Have I claimed the female in that comic to be emblematic of women per se? Do my comics as a body of work embody an anti-female stance? I don’t think you can open-mindedly read my comics and come to this conclusion.

The job of all writers, comedians in particular, is to offer insight. To offer insight, we have to be allowed to deal with reality, even when it’s ugly or weird. A while back, I was accused of sexism (even of making a rape joke) for a comic I did in which a smirking man told a chagrinned woman he had “orifice dyslexia.” Is the joke offensive? Quite possibly. Is it sexist? I don’t think so. Anyone who’s ever been in a real relationship knows that the bedroom can be a strange place – a place where people can be embarrassed or foolish. A place where you do things that don’t apply to your non-sexual relationship. A place no couple ever ran into, stripping clothes as they went, and moaning about the polite, courteous, agency-respectful sex they were about to have. If you tell me I can’t do that joke because it’s “sexist” or “a violation of female agency” (as at least one person wrote) you’re saying I can’t portray sex realistically. You’re asking me to occupy a world where people don’t behave like people – a world few people want to live in, and no one wants jokes from.


I hope the above arguments seem cogent. I took care not to write an anti-feminism essay, and I hope I’ve done a good job. I believe in realism and egalitarianism, and I try to fit my artistic work to that perspective.

To all those who do disagree and have disagreed with me on the above issues, please take it as a sign of my respect that I took two hours out of a day when I really don’t have the time to spare because this issue was of such great concern to me.

Hugs and kisses,


EDIT: Fixed massive typos.

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36 Responses to Mysogyny, Labels, Isms, et cetera

  1. crthomas says:

    Something is either funny, or it isn’t. You don’t like this particular piece of free comedy from a guy delivering this stuff every day? See what he comes up with tomorrow.

    The only way you are going to upset me with a comic is if tomorrow’s is two hours less funny because you spent that time writing an apology to people who are offended by everything.

    People being overly apologetic is why there are so many people demanding apologies.

  2. keeblaro says:

    I’m kind of busy with my qualifying exam right now. Do you think you could make a single panel that captures all of that for me?

  3. OpenMindedIrishman says:

    As an educated person I completely agree, jokes by nature are offensive. No joke can be too harsh unless pointed directly at someones misfortune. To claim that you single out a particular group is unfounded. You respectful insult everyone equally as any good comedian.
    On another note as an Irish person I’d love to see you do a comic about the Irish as I would see the reference to us as a people and not as an insult.

  4. MisterH says:

    Comedy, by and large, is about playing on expectations and sometimes cliches. Saying that a woman would might use a cleverly worded (though not entirely untrue…) sentence to convince her boyfriend to let her live with him is funny. Even more when it is compared to the usage of the Trojan Horse. It may play on the old adage about men fearing commitment and women constantly trying to trap them into it. However, I think the comic simply plays on that cliche rather than advancing it.

    Is it sexist to use a common joke and give it an interesting twist? I don’t think so. To communicate (and by virtue, do comedy) you occasionally have to say not nice things. The comic clearly paints the two characters in less than flattering light: the woman is conniving and the male is an idiot. Which is the greater crime? I can understand while it might be sexist, in your first definition, but only if you agree to say that it offends both men and women.

    Personally, I find the fact that every TV commercial for a cleaning product is very obviously skewed towards women offensive. However, every beer commercial has men lusting brainlessly after busty women, so, equal opportunity abounds. Of course, as a male myself, I’m a bit irked that males are frequently painted as a complete morons with a smugly superior wife, rolling her eyes at his inability to simply complete a grocery trip without assistance.

    My point is simply that there is plenty of things for folks to get offended by, regardless of their gender, race or other socioeconomic background. Just like you don’t assume Mark Twain was a racist because of the racial epithets he used in Tom Sawyer, don’t assume a comic writer is a sexist simply based on the fact that he riffs on the common theme of gender.

  5. minnmass says:

    I think that was a generally well-written piece (one minor issue: “homosexuals who’ve died of adds” – while I’ve seen a lot of advertisements recently, I don’t think any of them have been lethal).

    One does, however, wonder about the “feeding the trolls” aspect of any such response. I don’t know how many people have read today’s comic, but I’d bet that 1/10th of 1% of that number is plenty large to include the “you’re a sexist misogynist pig” emails you’ve received. Sadly, there will always be some subset of individuals who see a work and get terribly upset because it offends their sensibilities (ironically, the cliche is “get their panties in a twist”…).

    Writing a blog post like this is probably a good thing – those whose views can be changed will benefit, and you’re only out the two hours to write it (and, probably, another hour or two to read responses). Above all, though, keep up the good work! The comic (and blog, when you’ve got something to post) are both quite good. A few nay-sayers are to be expected.

  6. Skye Peters says:

    I’ve never read your blog before, but I had to read this post because I had to know how your comic could possibly be misogynist. And then I remembered half way through that there are women out there who spell woman “wombyn” and scream “misogyny” any time a man and a woman get within a mile of each other.

  7. Kelly says:

    Whatever. More graph jokes. :-)

    This joke wouldn’t have worked with a guy. It would have been creepy. This is the only way it could have worked. Your body of work speaks for itself.

  8. Cinnamon says:

    You said: “Observe: It is not racist to say “if a guy walks up to my car door, I lock it.””
    But it *is* sexist, though! The proper non-offensive construction ought to be “If a person walks up to my car door, I lock it.” This is, of course, ridiculous, in large part because women are far, far less likely to commit crimes than men are. So it’s ok for us to say “a guy” because “guys” commit a disproportionate amount of the crimes committed by all “persons”. By this same logic, if there existed a subset of “guys” that was committing crime at similarly disproportionate rates, we would be totally justified in saying “if a _____ guy walks up to my car door, I lock it”.

    • Jason says:

      In the lit, this is the difference between what’s called “taste-based discrimination” v. “statistical discrimination”, the former being based on personal feelings or tastes, and the latter being based on different proportions between groups.

      The ethics here are kind of murky–you say “totally justified” but that depends on the circumstances. For example:

      The experimental evidence suggests that, on average, women are less competitive than men. But that’s just one moment of the distribution–it’s certainly not relevant at the 1 v. 1 scale of differentiating between two prospective employees.

      Making an inference about one particular person based on nothing other than his or her gender or race, and correlations between gender/race and some other characteristic is discrimination, and you’ll make inferential errors that have real human consequences.

  9. I would guess that the reason you were accused of perpetuating rape culture is that a given joke’s offensiveness can be so extremely exacerbated by a person’s past experiences. What reads “he accidentally touched her somewhere that made her uncomfortable”, without any indication as to whether she had made a clear boundary previously, can be an excruciating, earth-shattering, trigger for someone with really horrible experiences with sex and boundaries.

    You might already know this, but in femenist spaces, potentially triggering content like this is always preceded by a “trigger warning” ( Even when the space is not-femenism oriented, many femenists still consider not putting one as an ignorant, even misogynistic choice.

    It’s all a matter of perspective. The only thing you can do about (other than not making jokes than could offend someone, which is practically impossible) is not be a dick when someone confronts you about it. Penny Arcade made that mistake with the whole Dickwolves scandal, and shit got pretty bad pretty fast. So good for you for being mature and respectful about it even though catering to such a diverse audience’s needs can be a complex, if not impossible task.

    • DPDS says:

      “many femenists still consider not putting one as an ignorant, even misogynistic choice.”

      And they are ignorant and self-serving. Luckily there are a lot of women that don’t hold views like that. There are a lot of women who don’t wanted to be treated like delicate little flowers that need special handling.

      • warped-ellipsis says:

        It’s not “wanting to be treated like a delicate little flower”. It’s a respectful warning, just like the sex and violence warnings on movie content. It’s not a call for censorship, it’s a mere request for a warning: “this deals with subject RR and could be upsetting to some people, this is fair warning, view it at your own risk”. Sometimes a person can deal with inflammatory content, other times the same person does not wish to engage with that material at a particular time. A simple warning, rather than being blindsided by material with the material that has the ability to completely shatter a person, makes a world of difference–from (at worst) shoving a person into a suicidal episode to a simple nod and “warning taken, preparations made”.

        Asking for that warning isn’t the “think of the children” or “coddle the women”. Read that upper paragraph–there is no mention of gender, age, or any type of identification of the reader. That is because sexual violence happens to everyone, for no reason other than the perpetrator decided to commit the crime. Asking for that warning isn’t for only one person–look up some statistics; it’s not whining for a bandaid on a phantom splinter prick–look up the effects of sexual crimes, especially the psychological ones; and it’s not asking for much–a simple short line of text at the top of a post, “trigger warning”, preferably with an identifying phrase(s) for the topic(s) under discussion.

        For information, read the pages under the “get info” section:
        Lack of information, willful or not, is ignorant. Self-serving is deliberately trodding on them without a care that you are doing it, without a care for the effects of your actions. You, DPDS–and any other readers–are now aware of both the information and the effects of your actions, assuming you were not previously aware. Choose more wisely in your speech and actions, there is no defense but deliberate cruelty in repetition.

    • Socks says:

      I find it amusing that you think “femenism” is a word. Subconsciously putting “men” in there?

  10. John Small Berries says:

    But, if the comic claims (as I suppose it does) “some women trade sex for gifts” is that sexist?

    Huh, I completely misread the comic, then. I interpreted it that the first four panels were a metaphor for the fifth: the woman’s offer of more sex was her “gift” to the man which, she hoped, would open the way for a relationship (her ultimate goal, and what he was trying to avoid).

    I didn’t see it as applying to all women (or even some women); just an incident between one woman and one man.

    But I guess I read things too straightforwardly, even when I think they’re metaphors.

  11. scutterman says:

    A great piece of writing, though I can’t help but thinking that the people sending you emails (who would benefit most from this open interaction with them) won’t be reading.

  12. A Person says:

    Yes, this comic was obviously a serious take on the nature of feminine manipulative relationship tactics, which you can tell by the use of the phrase “I just want more chances to have sex with you”.

    The entire panel isn’t literal, when you look at it. What the woman is saying is a paraphrased interpretation of what the guy is *hearing* her say, and his response is what he is actually thinking, not what he says to her in response. The bonus panel is how he feels after she has moved in (whether good in that he falls in love with her or bad in that she is killing his heart, there’s no way to tell).

    People need to open their eyes and stop seeing evil everywhere, I mean sheesh, seriously? In an SMBC comic? Weiner always does a great job of being as moral-minded as possible.

  13. kbeth says:

    While I generally agree with you, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. First, I disagree somewhat with MisterH — I think this comic could plausibly be argued as advancing the cliche of “woman who traps men into relationships they don’t want”. And I disagree that the man is portrayed as an idiot — he seems to be a guy who is somewhat wary, but is thinking “Well, not all women are like that, she probably just means what she’s saying…” So if we are supposed to think of him as an idiot, then we’re supposed to think that taking women at face value when they say things like that is idiocy.

    Now, at this point, if your comic had an established and diverse set of characters, and this kind of stereotypical subterfuge was totally in character for this woman, there wouldn’t be a problem. But since your characters are anonymous, the only information we have on these two is that one is male and one is female and they’re in a relationship. So the whole joke rests on people making the assumption that female = wants a “serious relationship” and is willing to lie (and play on stereotypical male expectations) to get there. Do you think this joke would work if it was the guy making the pitch to move in together?

    In general, I agree that people can be shallow and selfish and whatever, that humor intrinsically involves victims and victimizers, and that you can’t extrapolate misogyny or sexism from one example. But what about a plethora of examples? Here’s my question — are your women and men generally victims/victimizers in ways that conform to society’s stereotypes of those genders? Is there a pattern to your insulting portrayals? As someone who’s been reading your comic for several years, I’m not sure that there is, though I haven’t done a thorough study or anything. But that’s a point that you conspicuously didn’t address in this post, and I’d like to hear what you think about it.

  14. Matt Novack says:

    Great post. I work in Hollywood, and thankfully have never ran into a situation like the ones you have. But I count myself lucky to have worked with genuinely good people, I know there are some real jerks in this business and I’m not looking forward to running into them.

  15. Angel says:

    Nice boobs on Boobsy McLiarpants.

    Just send the uppity broads my way next time Weiner.

    -Angel aka Zach’s ridiculous straight chick friend

  16. Io says:

    I was not particularly perturbed by this comic, but I do see how it might be considered sexist. Unfortunately, it does not have much to do with your views or the comic itself: the comic simply fits in with the stereotypes espoused by popular culture (that guys care about sex and women want relationships). And, since the comic can be interpreted as the woman ensnaring the man (not that it should be interpreted that way, but it can), it might be considered somewhat misogynistic.

    Don’t worry about it. Your long-time readers are perfectly aware of your views. :)

  17. procne says:

    Zach — Thank you so much for the time and respect in writing up this response to some criticism that you got.

    I am a huge fan of SMBC and have found your comics both hilarious and consistently fair at mocking or celebrating or simply including. As a long-time reader, I would sincerely disagree with any accusation that you are a misogynist. I can see how the comic in question can be read as sexist, particularly taken out of context of the rest of your work (cf. the NOM incident for an example of that). Your thoughtful and not reactionary response just makes me that much bigger a fan of yours and only reconfirms my conclusion (that you should not be called a misogynist).

    This is not to say I completely concur with your reasoning. I would disagree with you on the point about ‘real’ sexism of LA vs. parsing semantics out of language (sexism can be a continuum of badness — there is a standard argument against calling anything sexist that isn’t tragically or literally brutal — e.g. how can LA have ‘real’ sexism if there is female infanticide in third-world countries). I think language does matter and understanding the context and impact that language has is important. Unfortunately, this is not a discussion to which internet comment threads are well suited, and it isn’t my intention to incite a downward spiral of trolling on that point.

    I bring this up to highlight only that, while I don’t agree with all of your points, I sincerely appreciate the fact that you wrote them up in a calm and logical manner.

    There have been a number of recent examples of artists or writers being accused of misogyny (seemingly out of ignorance or lack of awareness) and the responses from these artists (and their fans) have ranged from highly defensive to full of worse misogyny and sexist invective than the original example ever contained.

    I cannot say how much your thoughtful, respectful, and well-written response means and how happy I am to call myself a huge fan of yours. Thank you.

    Now, I should go buy some posters & let you get back to the dick (and graph) jokes!

  18. Zmee says:

    I don’t know whose getting hot and bothered about this, but I read that cartoon and just thought to myself .oO(What a naive fool) laughed at the gullible male character and went on my merry way. Which is I suppose an interesting point in and of itself – is the (apparent) sexism here actually directed toward the male, for being so stupid as to believe that?

    I haven’t a clue. I can’t read minds and frankly found nothing wrong with the joke. It’s the old ‘we recieved complaints about X on TV’ issue. Yeah, you get 10 complaints, when 10 million people view the thing. It’s just it’s easier to whine online, since there’s a whacking great CONTACT THE AUTHOR button on your website. ;)

  19. Gordon says:

    For me, what makes it not even remotely a sexist joke is that if the genders for both the characters were switched, I would still find it exactly as funny.

  20. Jon B. says:

    Don Miguel Ruiz in the book “The Four Agreements”:

    #2. Don’t Take Anything Personally

    Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

    – In essence, people search for reasons to complain in an attempt to get the stressors out of their own life. I personally do it every time I see any article on LGBT unfairness or ignorance of historical/present fact. After arguing on a forum for 4+ hours, I feel a sense of release and sometimes even accomplishment. More than likely those who emailed were experiencing a similar moment and needed a release.

    In essence, I am saying: Offer apologies for founded issues. If the issue is not founded, say so in a concise manner and move on. The person you are responding to will either take it or not, but that is their choice. You must not let another’s misinterpretation bring you to taking two hours to argue something that is unfounded.

    With Love,

    ~ Jon B.
    SMBC Theater Cast Member

  21. Stephen says:

    It’s probably sexist, but this is humor. You’re pointing it out by comparing it with a classic tale, not condoning and celebrating it. That’s what humorists do.

  22. Ryan says:

    I’d just like to point out a few things that I found curious about your arguments.

    You mention that you found the difference between LA-style sexism and college-campus-discussion sexism striking and telling of a disconnect between real sexism and some form of pedantry. (I’m paraphrasing what I perceive, so please correct me if I’m being unfair, if you have the time to read and respond to this.)

    The problem with this argument, I think, is that it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Cultures can have small, constantly present symptoms of much larger, entrenched, and overt issues. It’s not surprising at all that the term “sexism” can cover small breaches of respect as well as tremendous breaches of respect.

    It’s certainly fair of you to expect people to explain their positions in more detail, so people don’t just call you sexist and leave it at that, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss criticism of the small breaches just because the larger breaches exist.

    As someone said in the reddit thread that you tweeted, it’s not necessarily that the joke is inherently sexist; it’s that elements of it, as they are arranged, strongly evoke sexist attitudes, especially the point that you’ve noted about the myth lending a sense of universality. If you want to subvert that, an easy way would be to switch the sexes of the characters, as Gordon mentions above. This is even a tactic you mention making use of with regard to race. If you find that notion unsatisfactory, then does the argument that the joke isn’t about her sex really hold water?

    So what I’m getting at is that, since you already take such care as a speaker to avoid sending unintended messages with regard to race and sexism, is it not enough to approach this particular kerfuffle as a simple oversight in your usual way of processing your comics? I don’t think defending it as not sexist works, because you acknowledge that sending unintended messages still counts as sending those messages in the case of race.

    And let me be clear: I am fully aware that your body of work does not reveal you as sexist or racist or anything but a very egalitarian and respectful person. In general, you do walk the line between poking fun and maintaining respect very well. But individual comics get circulated as such without all the attached context and history, so I think you should take that into account.

    SORRY FOR THE WORD WALL and thanks for reading it if you do find the time!

    • Leona says:

      A joke is not sexist simply because it plays on gender stereotypes and expectations. Perpetuating stereotypes is frustrating for those who want to erase them, but these stereotypes don’t have anything to do with superiority or inferiority. Expecting higher sex drive and lower commitment from men (and the opposite from women) doesn’t mean that I hate men or think women are inferior. It’s biological and experiential as well as cultural. It is possible to hold those expectations of fictional characters while still knowing that plenty of men aren’t just out for sex and plenty of women are. It’s different from expecting one of them to be smart or stupid, because whether they want sex or a commitment is not a positive or negative reflection on them. No one looks down on her for wanting a relationship (or on him for wanting sex – if anything, that would be the most likely source of contempt in this comic, and that would be sexist against him). Expecting her to want a relationship rather than casual sex is a stereotype, yes…but not sexist.

      The fact that the woman doesn’t defy stereotypes isn’t sexist, either…portraying women as imperfect isn’t sexist. That’s like saying that real women who are manipulative are sexist. Sure, they give the rest of us a bad name, but saying they’re sexist doesn’t really make sense…they perpetuate stereotypes much more than comics do. And they do exist, which means that portraying one woman as manipulative means portraying a certain unspecified woman realistically. Reality is not sexist.

      And of course, the fact that the vast majority of Zach’s female characters portray non-manipulative women realistically speaks for itself.

      The fact is, I don’t approach my interactions with men thinking that all they want is to get into my pants. THAT would be sexist. But expecting such behavior from a character in a comedy allows jokes to be made. I don’t expect comic characters to be realistic – I expect them to be funny. I can tell the difference between reality and fiction. I’m female, and that woman does not represent me. The fact that she’s female doesn’t mean she’s me, any more than any other woman is me. Meeting a man who just wants to get into my pants is much more likely to perpetuate the stereotype in my mind than reading a comic where a man acts like that.

  23. JRM says:

    When I first read the comic, I thought the tone was slightly off the usual SMBC vibe. It did play off some more standardish gender role stuff than usual. I do at least see why some complained, though I think the complainers are misguided.

    I think there are two issues:

    First off, playing off stereotypical gender roles can be sexist or it can be observant. I don’t want to let out any secrets, but men are different than women. That doesn’t mean men and women shouldn’t have the same opportunities or be afforded the same respect, but they’re different.

    But there’s also a keeping-women-down vibe that I think you can recognize when you see it. I don’t see it.

    Secondly, I think the bona fides matter when you’ve got something like this. Lawrence Summers got (wrongly, IMO) fired for saying the known difference between men and women in certain skills may have a biological basis. I believe that the evidence is overwhelming that, at the top, men are better at math than women (for instance) and that a substantial basis for that difference is biological. When I say things like this, people might think me (and Larry Summers) an asshole, due to the fact that people who say things like this are often assholes with agendas that are unhelpful. But I think they are wrong.

    Jon Entine talked about this on the race issue (even more loaded) in his book Taboo about some Africans having a genetic advantage in running. He noted the long history of assholes and their nonsense studies done for the purpose of hurting blacks.

    Short version: Any time you start saying or implying people of different genders are collectively different in any way, you are saying something that assholes have been saying in an effort to suppress women.

    The problem isn’t you, though. The problem is the assholes. You’re not an asshole, and you’re clearly interested in people of different backgrounds having equal opportunities, and it appears to me that you treat them equally.

    The problem with the complainers is that they can’t differentiate between the assholes (of which there are, admittedly, plenty) and entirely appropriate comedy. I primarily blame the assholes for this, but I wouldn’t change a thing for the complainers. You’re a good human.

    –JRM, who has decent bona fides but who will inevitably be thought an asshole by some for his views.

  24. MarkS says:

    Too many people who want to be offended
    Not enough people with thick skins
    (including SMBC writers)
    Grow a pair
    Have fun

  25. Jon says:

    This was exceptionally well-argued, Zach. You expressed my own views in a more concrete and substantial way than I think I ever could.

  26. warped-ellipsis says:

    For the record, I think the comic was neither sexist nor warranted a trigger warning for rape/assault; for the latter at least, triggers can be highly specific. To put triggers on anything even dating-related for that wouldn’t isn’t logical; perhaps there is a trigger for dating violence?

    On the comic being sexist: Taking it out of context, it would be sexist; doing that is akin to Fox taking part of the rapper Common’s lyrics and calling him a misogynist, ignoring that the larger body of his work is blatantly anti-misogynistic. Unlike Fox drones, we are not sheeple; let’s not nitpick at a single scene and thereby miss the setup for the whole movie.

    Anyhow, it’s not the comic I disagree with, it’s part of the post in defense of the comic. English as a language is not inherently sexist (or any *ist, minus the common-use lack of gender-neutral pronouns); but language as it is used is fully *ist. Replace the “retarded” (ablist) with its racist, sexist, other *ist counterparts:
    Presentation of ideas like that do hurt, they are *ist. “Pussy” is sexist, because it’s the worst insult to be called–no matter the gender of the receiver. It is not on the same level as “dickhead”. Not only that, but it does not even make sense as an insult unless it is as a gendered insult–the vagina is one of the strongest muscles, it isn’t a weak spot like punching a penis is, and its association of a cat is not a predator to trifle with. None of those can be said for floppy, weak, delicate testicles and penises. Defaulting to “he” and using “men” to refer to everyone is sexist; referring to a rowdy group of adults as “children” is demeaning, just as referring to that same group with the same behavior as “ladies” (provided they aren’t all women) is demeaning and sexist. It is to say that to be female is to be less. Those ideas are the verbal expression of the “send a headshot” sexism.

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  29. Travis says:

    Interesting argument, and understandable. You may have built up characters in your mind that are acting as the characters you’ve created would act. However you’ve only presented the reader with a single frame contrasted against the winning maneuver in the trojan war. With no further context into these character’s lives outside of a single frame the reader has to assume that these characters are representational of archetypes they’re used to.

    That being said, they should have some sort of clue when she says something completely out of character for the archetypical female in relationship. I see it as a subversion of observational humor where the male is an archetypical male but he’s put into a situation that more or less doesn’t happen and is counter to what you see.

    So: I agree that it’s not sexist but I disagree with the notion that a character you’ve drawn in a single frame is supposed to carry with it it’s own developed personality. With a single frame you’re challenged to work with the audience’s stereotypes. The humor comes with skewing the stereotype and throwing the reader into a seemingly non-sequitor of what they are used to, at least that’s what I’ve seen from your comics. With some topics a character is just a character regardless of skin type or gender — This is where I would agree with you that a black person is a person who happens to be black or a woman is a person with a particular shape. However, when you get into a situation involving sex or race, that’s when the generic character isn’t necessarily so generic and becomes a stereotype for you to skew.

    /ramble over, hope I made sense.

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