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.