Category Archives: media issues

Five Comic Books I Would Recommend To Bill Maher

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I love comic books.

I love superhero movies.

I love geek culture and actively participate in it.

I also understand that there are people who don’t share those passions. Some may even see them as childish and foolish. That’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t make them a bad person, by default. It doesn’t even mean I can’t get along with them or agree with them on other issues.

The fact I have to make that disclaimer only makes the current state of affairs more frustrating. I feel it’s more necessary now because I’m about to address a topic has evoked all the wrong emotions for all the wrong reasons. Normally, my first instinct is to avoid such controversy, but since it involves superhero comics, I feel inclined to respond.

It started late last year with a blog post by Bill Maher, a late night talk show host for the long-running HBO series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” That blog post came shortly after the death of Stan Lee and, without going too heavily into details, attacked the culture behind comic books and superhero media.

Many took that post as an insult to the legacy of Stan Lee. Having read that post multiple times, I really didn’t get that sense. I won’t deny that I took some offense to it, but I’ve read far more offensive things in the comments section of YouTube videos. The fact that it got such a visceral reaction only skewed the conversation even more.

Then, this past week on his show, Mr. Maher finally addressed the issue again in the closing commentary on his show. If you haven’t seen it, here it is.

The long and short of it is his commentary had less to do with Stan Lee and more to do with people who think comic books warrant serious cultural weight. He goes onto bemoan how people cling to the things they loved as kids as a way of avoiding the adult world. It’s less an indictment on people who like comics and more a criticism of people who whine about adulting, in general.

To some extent, I understand his criticism. There are people in this world who try to avoid adult responsibilities at every turn. They don’t want to deal with the harshness of the real world and cling to fantasies about having superpowers that render those problems moot. Even as someone who loves superhero comics and movies, I think that’s an issue for some people.

For most people though, it’s just fun. Mr. Maher seems to completely overlook that. I don’t care how old you get. Having fun is fun. Comics are a lot of fun to read, follow, and enjoy. The more “serious” pieces of literature that he recommends in his commentary probably have plenty of merit, but they’re not nearly as fun.

The idea that he finds superhero media as childish is understandable. Bill Maher is over 60 years old. For most of his life, comic books and superheroes have been for children. It’s only within the last 30 years that they’ve matured to a point where they appeal to all ages, so much so that they’ve raked in over $20 billion at the box office. You don’t make that much money on childish things.

In addition to box office billions, some comics have gained serious acclaim. A select few have even been recognized as some of the greatest literary works in the past 100 years. I doubt Mr. Maher is aware of this because most of these amazing works happened after he became an adult. I imagine that if you were to ask most people his age, they would agree that comics shouldn’t be considered serious literature.

I respectfully disagree with that notion and I know many others disagree as well. That said, I doubt anyone will ever convince Mr. Maher that he’s wrong. He has made his politics very clear on many occasions and I don’t doubt he’ll say other offensive things in the future.

At the very least, I can offer Mr. Maher some perspective. I believe that, if he were to give comics a chance, he would see their literary value. He may still think they’re childish, but I think he would have a greater appreciation for the medium, if only because he sees how it has evolved since he was a kid.

What follows are five comics that I would personally recommend to Mr. Maher. I feel these books would help show just how salient comics can be in terms of society, politics, and art. While I doubt he’ll give them a chance, I hope others who share his sentiments take a moment to see why comic books and superhero media have become such an integral part of our culture.


Watchmen

This is an easy choice and not just because Watchmen routinely ranks near the top as on of the greatest comic books of all time. This seminal work by Alan Moore and David Gibbons actually speaks to the same criticisms that Mr. Maher levied against superheroes. Watchmen is, at its heart, the ultimate deconstruction of the entire concept of superheroes.

This story isn’t just about heroes fighting villains or heroes fighting other heroes. Watchmen is a story with deep, philosophical overtones about what it means to wield power and make peace in a chaotic world. It casts a harsh light on the dangers of relying on superheroes or super-powered beings to solve big problems on the global stage. It’s a sentiment that Mr. Maher himself has made on more than one occasion.

Being a political person, I believe Mr. Maher would find a lot to enjoy about the world of Watchmen. Beyond the art and the complexities of the story, it has a message that goes beyond good guys fighting bad guys.

In many respects, Watchmen was the comic that broke all the rules and ushered the medium into a new era. It proved that a comic could make serious contributions to the world of literature. Between its unique place in the history of comics and the awards it received, I think Watchmen can prove to Mr. Maher that comics can be great works of art that tell relevant messages for the real world.


Sandman

This is another series that routinely gets mentioned in discussions surrounding the greatest comics of all time. Like Watchmen, Sandman pushed the limits on what a comic book could be. It’s not a standard superhero comic. It’s not about heroes searching for some ominous glowing object, which is something Mr. Maher pointed out in his criticism. Sandman is deeper than that.

The writer of Sandman, Neil Gaiman, dared to craft a more mature fantasy. This is a world where mythological figures like Morpheus, Lucifer, and even characters from the bible interact with one another in a complex narrative that provides insight into spirituality, religion, and philosophy.

I believe that insight would appeal to Mr. Maher more than most and not just because he’s a self-admitted stoner. Say what you will about him, but he’s a very intelligent man who went to an Ivy League school. He also majored in English, which I think would make Sandman that much more appealing to him.

The story in Sandman is not something most children will understand or appreciate. Even most adults may struggle to make sense of the various themes that Gaiman explores throughout the book. It’s a powerful story, but one that works best in the medium of comics. I think if Mr. Maher gave Sandman a chance, he would see that.


X-men: God Loves, Man Kills

Even though Mr. Maher singled out superheroes as the most childish element of comics, I believe there are still a select few that would still appeal to him, if only because of his political leanings. Mr. Maher has always identified as a liberal and routinely espouses the value of liberal principles. He grew up watching the civil rights movement unfold and it has clearly had an impact on him.

That’s exactly why a comic like X-men: God Loves, Man Kills would resonate with him. Even though it follows many common superhero themes, this classic X-men story by legendary X-men writer, Chris Claremont, goes much further in linking the struggle of the X-men with that of civil rights.

This story is less about the X-men fighting killer robots and more about confronting the depths of human bigotry. In addition to providing the inspiration for “X2,” it explores a kind of bigotry that feels like it was ripped from the real world. It even throws religion into the mix with the introduction of Reverend William Stryker, a man who has drawn more than a few comparisons with Vice President Mike Pence.

Mr. Maher will probably notice those parallels more than most. He has made no secret of his disdain for organized religion and the people who use it to justify their bigotry. X-men: God Loves, Man Kills tells a story of just how dangerous that kind of religiously-motivated bigotry can get. Even though it’s still a superhero story, it doesn’t hide from the real-world parallels.

Good literature, whether it’s a comic book or a novel, often reflects the controversies of its time. The X-men were created right at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. Stan Lee has gone on record as saying that elements of the X-men were inspired by real life heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. As both a proud liberal and a critic of religion, Mr. Maher will find plenty to like about this classic X-men story.


All-Star Superman

This story might be the toughest sell for Mr. Maher. However, I think if any comic can demonstrate the value of superheroes, it’s All-Star Superman. This love letter to Superman and all the fanciful themes surrounding him is a celebration of the ultimate hero. Even if Mr. Maher thinks idolizing heroes is dangerous, I think even he’ll appreciate why Superman is such an icon after 80 years.

What makes All-Star Superman special isn’t in how it depicts the Man of Steel at his best. It’s not just about him saving the day, defeating Lex Luthor, and winning the love of Lois Lane. More than anything else, the story that Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly tell demonstrates just how much Superman inspires those around him.

Throughout the series, there are many great moments that are full of heart, hope, and compassion. Some of it is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it never feels corny. There’s never a point where Superman takes a moment to tell a bunch of kids to eat their vegetables and stay in school. It doesn’t try to make Superman someone he’s not. He’s the ultimate paragon of virtue and this series just runs with that.

To further raise the stakes, this version of Superman is living on borrowed time. As powerful as he is, he has saved the day one time too many. He basically has to do what he can with what little time he has left to make the world a better place. It’s an endeavor that even Mr. Maher can appreciate.

More than once, Mr. Maher has tried to inspire others to be better. Even if his efforts are politically motivated, the will to inspire is something he’s always shown, going back to his days on “Politically Incorrect.” Even if he thinks Superman comics are for kids, he can still appreciate Superman’s efforts to inspire the good in others.


Y: The Last Man

This is another acclaimed comic series that doesn’t rely on superheroes, fancy costumes, or superpowers. At a time when gender politics are such a hot topic, a series like Y: The Last Man is more relevant than ever. This beloved comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra takes issues surrounding gender to an apocalyptic extreme.

As someone who has routinely criticized how the debate surrounding feminism and gender has evolved, I believe Mr. Maher will find a lot to like about Y: The Last Man. This is a story that puts men and women in the ultimate bind. One day, without warning, every creature on Earth with a Y chromosome just keels over and dies. Only one man, Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey, Ampersand, survive.

The story the follows is both a fight for survival and a critical insight into what happens when gender dynamics operate in extremes. The world that Vaughan and Guerra show just how much men and women rely on one another without realizing it. When one is completely removed from the equation, it pushes people beyond the brink.

At the same time, it shows just how resilient people can be in terrible situations. The will to survive knows no gender. It can bring out the best and the worst in someone, but the best is what usually keeps driving us. Mr. Maher has often spoken urgently about issues like climate change. The apocalyptic setting of Y: The Last Man shows why that urgency is necessary.


Again, I don’t expect Mr. Maher to change his mind on much. He has made it abundantly clear in the past that he is very set in his ways. However, if he is genuinely open to seeing the merits of comic books, these titles should help. Comic books may have been for kids when he was a kid. They have since become so much more and their legacy, like that of Stan Lee’s, will continue for generations to come.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, media issues, political correctness, religion, superhero comics, superhero movies, television

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day And Escaping Hate

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To everyone out there who values peace, justice, and equality, I wish you a happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. To some, this is just a day where kids get an extra day off school. To others, it’s a reminder of just how far we’ve come in the struggle against racism, injustice, and bigotry. Even though it seems like we’re stagnating at times, we’re still world’s better than we were in the days of Dr. King.

It’s hard to for young people today to understand just how entrenched racial attitudes were 60 years ago. For generations, inequality and bigotry wasn’t an aberration. It was the norm. Fighting that was like fighting the tides for a lot of people, but unlike the tides, hearts and minds can change.

That’s something Martin Luther King Jr. believed in. He dedicated his life to confronting hate and pursuing justice for everyone, regardless of race. His legacy lives on today for minorities of all kinds, from the LGBT community to immigrants. It may seem like an uphill battle at times and even after Dr. King’s death, there are still plenty of bigoted attitudes in the world today. Some people cling to those attitudes more than most.

However, it is possible for someone to let go of their hatred. It’s not easy, but it does happen. In the spirit of this day that I’m sure brings out a lot of conflicting passions in today’s society, I’d like to share one of my favorite Ted Talks.

This one is from Christian Picciolini, a former Neo-Nazi and white supremacist who managed to leave his hateful past behind. His story is one that’s especially relevant on a day like today because it doesn’t just reveal how people end up in hate groups. It shows just how difficult it is to get out. It can be done, though, and Mr. Picciolini’s story is one worth telling.

Whatever your politics, prejudices, and attitudes, we are all still human. We all inhabit this planet together. We all want a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. Ultimately, we can achieve much more by working together than by hating one another. That’s what Dr. King fought for and his legacy is worth celebrating, now more than ever.

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Filed under extremism, human nature, media issues, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology

Six New Years Resolutions For 2019 (That Will Help Everybody)

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It’s that time of year again. By that, I mean it’s the time when people either bemoan how few of their New Years resolutions they accomplished this past year and try to convince themselves they’ll do better next year. I’m not knocking the concept. I’m as guilty of that as the next person who dares to set goals at the end of every year.

I like to think I’ve accomplished a thing or two, but 2018 was rough for me. It’s not just that I was unable to find a new publisher for my outstanding manuscripts. When 2018 began, “Passion Relapse” and “Rescued Hearts” were my only published novels. I’d hoped to add at least one, but that didn’t pan out. I tried to make up for it by writing over two dozen sexy short stories, but I’m still determined to further publishing efforts.

Beyond my publishing endeavors, though, I underwent some pretty major upheavals. A very close family member of mine passed away, which was incredibly difficult. There were a few other major life events that I’d prefer not to share just yet. While 2018 had plenty of high points, the low points were especially painful.

Be that as it may, I’m more ready than most to close the book on 2018 and work on making 2019 much better. While I have my share of resolutions that I’d like to achieve, I would also like to contemplate resolutions that society, as a whole, can strive to achieve in 2019.

Let’s face it, we had some pretty bad moments in 2018. There’s a lot of room for improvement in 2019. I’m not saying humanity can fix all its problems in one year, but striving to do better is always worth doing. What follows are six New Years resolutions for humanity in 2019. Some are more ambitious than others, but I think these are minor steps we can take to making 2019 the best year it can be.


Resolution #1: Learn To Channel Selective Outrage For More Productive Purposes

This could’ve easily been a resolution for 2018, as well. It’ll likely be a resolution for years to come because, as I’ve noted before, getting exceedingly outraged over trivial matters has become a pastime, of sorts, for people these days. The internet and social media is just the platform. People are the ones who stoke the fires.

Whether it’s controversy over Jennifer Lawrence’s dress or getting all up in arms about old jokes from famous comedians, people seem to get outraged over exceedingly petty things. Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get riled up, but there are some things that just aren’t worth the emotional energy.

Who hosts the Oscars or old tweets from a decade ago do not warrant this kind of attention in the marketplace of ideas. Scandals about big companies illegally harvesting user data or children being forcibly separated from their parents are more deserving of such outrage. There are things worth getting upset about and celebrity attire isn’t one of them.

For 2019, I think we’ll do everyone a favor by channeling our outrage into something that actually warrants it. It can’t just be about what celebrities do or whether certain video game characters are too sexy. There’s plenty of room to channel our outrage into something more productive.


Resolution #2: Stop Taking Certain Celebrities Seriously

This is closely tied to the first resolution, but I thought it deserved a resolution of its own. Let’s face it. Our culture is obsessed with celebrities. We have been since long before the rise of mass media. It’s not going to stop in 2019, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be more diligent with how we obsess over celebrities.

Specifically, we can go out of our way to ignore certain individuals whose rhetoric is barely discernible from typical trolls. I’m talking about the Lena Dunhams and Ted Nugents of the world. These are not serious people with serious ideas. They’re celebrities who pretend to know what they’re talking about and not very well.

There are plenty of respectable celebrities worth following and admiring. While the assholes may make the news, there are celebrities out there who do genuinely good things and they deserve true admiration. We can do both them and the world a favor by not giving so much attention to those who don’t deserve it.

When in doubt, just follow someone like Ryan Reynolds.


Resolution #3: Focus On Future Possibilities Rather Than Past Transgressions

There are a lot of factors that fuel outrage, controversy, and what not. One that often comes up involves past transgressions and for good reason. Historically, people have been committing horrific atrocities on one another due to differences in race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender. These actions are objectively awful. Nobody can deny that.

That said, focusing on them and bemoaning them constantly does nothing to honor the victims or reduce the potential for similar atrocities. We can’t change the past. We can only learn from it. The crimes, be they the horrific treatment of a particular race or the actions of a particular individual, cannot be undone. We can prosecute them and, if possible, we should.

However, there comes a point where focusing so much on past crimes becomes less about learning from them and more about whining. I see it a lot in debates surrounding race and gender. One race or gender bemoans how horrible they had been treated in the past and use that to justify their sentiments in the present. That’s not a productive use of history.

That’s because whining is never productive. It’s true. Things in the past weren’t very pleasant for a lot of people, especially if they were a minority. There’s no way to change that. Many of the victims and perpetrators are long dead and can never be held accountable. While that clashes with our innate sense of injustice, it’s not something we can change.

That’s why it’s important to focus on the future rather than whining about the past. We can’t change the past, but we can shape the future. We can do things that’ll make the world better for everybody, regardless of their minority status. Whining, however, is not one of those things.


Resolution #4: Celebrate Good More Than Emphasizing Bad

You don’t have to look far to see some pretty awful things happening in the world. Those awful things are usually the first thing to make the news. The whole “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra has a lot of distressing truth to it.

Even though 2018 had plenty of horrific news, there were genuine bright spots. Did you know that charitable giving reached record highs this past year? Did you know crime rates are tending downward in almost every major city? Did you know science developed a drought-resistant rice that could potentially feed millions? Did you know that Jean Grey finally came back from the dead in the X-men comics after a 15-year absence?

That last one was for me, as a life-long X-men fan. However, the point is still valid. There was a lot of good news that happened in 2018, in terms of society and civilization. Even in genuinely awful stories, you can find bits of hope here and there. You don’t even have to look too hard. The news is there, if you’re willing to find it.

That’s a resolution I think is worth pursuing, even if horrific news still gets our attention. The good will never shock us as much, but it will evoke all the right emotions. I strongly believe in having faith in humanity. I’ve explained why on a few occasions. I think we would do ourselves and our futures a favor by celebrating that good rather than agonizing over the bad.


Resolution #5: Laugh At Absurdities Instead Of Making Them Controversies

Beyond the good news and the bad news, 2018 had plenty of weird news as well. Granted, a lot of them came from Florida, but the principle is the same. Regardless of whether you think people are inherently good or bad, most can agree they do weird things. You can either lament for the future of our species or just laugh at it.

As it turns out, laughing is a lot healthier. It helps make difficult or strange situations easier to process. Let’s face it, we’re always going to have plenty of those, even if you don’t live in Florida. The best thing we can do is laugh, even if it’s not that funny. It’s something we should do plenty of in 2019 because 2018 showed a marked decline in peoples’ sense of humor.

There were controversies about jokes in the past and jokes that were in poor taste. Granted, not all of these jokes were funny, but making them into these big controversies about race, gender, and what not didn’t help. All it did was fuel contrived outrage over issues that didn’t need any extra fodder.

People are going to tell bad jokes. We can’t be as funny or as smart as George Carlin or Richard Pryor. People are going to get offended too, but that can’t be the sole basis for a controversy. Being offended is not a serious injury and offending someone is not a crime. If faced with the option of laughing it off or making a big deal out of something comes up in 2019, let’s just err on the side of laughter.


Resolution #6: Focus On What We Can Control Instead Of Agonizing Over What We Can’t Control

This is something that become a major talking point in 2018 and, at times, for the right reason. There was a lot of whining, especially in the world of outrage culture and politics. However, there was a bit more emphasis on what to actually do about it. Specifically, there was a huge push to urge people to vote in the mid-term elections. That effort, as frustrating as it was at times, paid off.

Voter turnout in the 2018 Midterm Elections was the highest it had been since the mid-1960s. The results paid off. People wanted change, there was a process for implementing that change, and they did it. That’s how we progress in a functioning society. It’s not always as extensive as we prefer, but it’s still progress.

This was in stark contrast to those who whine constantly about what one particular gender or race has done in the past. Like I said in the previous resolution, we can’t change the past. Whining about it won’t magically conjure a time machine or rewrite history. It’ll just incur pity, which is even less productive.

There are things we can do to help people. Do you want to help women who have been sexually abused? Contribute to legal funds that help them prosecute their abusers. Do you want to help save the environment? Consider donating to the World Wildlife Fund or invest in green energy. Do you want to help victims of atrocities? Consider donating or volunteering for the Red Cross or Amnesty International.

These actions constitute meaningful change in a world that still needs it. Your money and your time are tangible assets that can do real help. Whining doesn’t help and neither does contrived outrage. We live in a complicated world where a lot of things are out of our control. By focusing on what we can control, we can make 2019 the best year it can possibly be and I’m ready to do my part.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, gender issues, human nature, media issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in society

When Fighting For Equality Is Counterproductive

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Have you ever met someone who is just inherently better at something than you? No matter how hard you practice, you just can’t reach their level. They’re still better. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that we all have to learn at some point, but I worry that some people are trying to put that lesson off while others are trying to outright subvert it.

In general, the intent is noble. The world is full of horrendous inequality. There’s wealth inequality, gender inequality, and even inequality in representation within superhero comics. While we have done a lot in the century to reduce inequality, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

For the most part, people support those efforts. You won’t find many people who aren’t enjoying a fat inheritance that will say outright they want less equality. Segregation, rigid caste systems, and the dehumanization of minorities is largely frowned upon for reasons I hope I don’t have to recount.

Seeking a more equal and just world is a perfectly respectable endeavor. For the most part, I support those efforts. I believe we should work towards a more egalitarian society where the rights and dignity of individuals are protected and respected. Even though we have laws in place, as well as principles espoused at an international level, we could do a better job at enforcing them.

With all that said, there’s still one burning question that I feel is worth answering. It relates directly to the first question I asked earlier and the harsh lesson it teaches us.

How much equality is actually possible?

It’s one of those questions that’s impossible to answer, but evokes many heated debates, regardless of politics or affiliation. Whether it’s economic issues or gender issues, these debates often devolve into one side calling the other a fascist or a bully. Every now and then, there’s some meaningful discourse and even a few novel ideas. In the era of outrage culture, though, this seems to be getting increasingly rare.

We’re at a point where even the slightest hint of inequality is deemed untenable.

Are there too few female superheroes in comic books? That’s not equal!

Are there too few people of color being cast in major move roles? That’s not equal!

Are there too few minorities in Forbes list of 100 richest people? That’s not equal!

Are there too few women in fields of science, medicine, and technology? That’s not equal!

Are there too few dating options for people who are disabled or obese? That’s not equal!

Are there too many beautiful women who only hook up with assholes? That’s not equal!

Are there too many handsome men who only date supermodels? That’s not equal!

I could list dozens of other situations that are grossly unequal. I purposefully omitted big ones like the gender wage gap and racial disparity in criminal arrests because these are cases that best highlight the logistics of promoting equality versus the ideals surrounding equality.

By law, it’s illegal to pay someone less because of their gender and has been since 1963. The courts have also historically ruled that it’s illegal to selectively enforce laws on the basis of race. These precedents are decades old and on the books for any lawyer to enforce. Why is there still so much inequality?

There are many reasons for that and I’m not smart enough to make sense of all of them. However, I think the mechanisms that continue to drive inequality can be best summed up by a terrible Jennifer Aniston movie from 2006 called “The Break-Up.” Yes, I know that sounds ridiculously random. I promise there’s a reason behind it and it relates to the underlying concept of equality.

In that movie, a couple is going through some nasty conflicts that are only mildly amusing at best. However, the most revealing quote from the movie, which also happens to be most relevant to this topic, is when Jennifer Aniston’s character tells her significant other this.

“I want you to WANT to do the dishes.”

It is, without question, an absurd statement that makes an unreasonable demand on someone she claims to love. It nicely sums up the entire conflict of the movie and effectively spoils the ending. These two are not in a functional relationship. In fact, if they had actually stayed together at the end, it would have been unhealthy for both of them.

That’s not because the relationship was unequal. It’s because both Jennifer Aniston’s character and Vince Vaughn’s character had very different ideas of what was “fair.” I put fair in quotes because it was an empty concept in this context. They didn’t just want equality in terms of roles, responsibilities, and privileges. They wanted equality of outcome and consequences.

That’s not just an unreasonable expectation. It’s a catalyst for outrage. It’s one thing to fight for legal equal protection, but fighting for equal outcomes and consequences is a losing battle. You’re better off trying to divert Niagara Falls by spitting at it. On top of that, it sets people up for disappointment and outrage.

The all-female remake of “Ghostbusters” was never going to make as much money or be as beloved as the original.

The push for less sexy video game characters was never going to improve gender relations in the gaming community.

Attempts to replace Iron Man with a 15-year-old black girl from Chicago was never going last for very long.

All these outcomes were fairly predictable, but still generated incredible outrage with people crying discrimination, racism, sexism, and every other kind of insult in keeping with Godwin’s Law. As a result, those still fighting for what they see as “fair” have to step up their game and push harder. That often means becoming more extreme in rhetoric, emotions, and tactics.

Since things like reality, facts, and basic human nature often get lost in extremes, it makes sense that we have such radical segments of the political and social spectrum. I believe most of them genuinely believe they’re fighting for greater equality and greater fairness, as they see it. A few are probably just genuine assholes looking for excuses to be bigger assholes, but they’re the minority.

To some extent, I can appreciate the intent and effort of those fighting for more equality. The world is still imperfect and humanity, as a whole, is exceedingly imperfect. Our collective history is riddled with injustices and atrocities of staggering proportions. We should strive to be better, as individuals and as a civilization. A part of that effort pursuing a society of equal rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

At the same time, some levels of inequality are unavoidable. Sometimes, it’s due to simple demographics. Sometimes, it’s due to the basic laws of biodiversity or sexual dimorphism. Sometimes, there are individuals that are just inherently better at you than something. I could practice basketball every hour of every day for the rest of my life. I’ll still never be as good as LeBron James.

That kind of equality is just not possible in the real world. Until we all become shape-shifting cyborgs, we can only be equal to a certain extent. Many sincere people disagree on where that extent is and where it should apply.

However, there’s a real danger in trying to achieve the impossible and getting upset whenever it’s not achieved. It doesn’t just suck up energy, ideas, and resources from other meaningful endeavors. It fosters hostility towards others and their ideas. In the same way Jennifer Aniston’s character couldn’t make her boyfriend want to do the dishes, we can’t make someone else want our idea of equality.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, media issues, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in media, sex in society

Why Idris Elba’s Advice To Men On The Anti-Harassment Movement Is Flawed

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These are tenuous times for gender relations. Between the rise of the anti-harassment movement and the revelation of egregious crimes committed by once-respected celebrities, society is undergoing to significant upheaval in how we approach sex, relationships, and harassment.

Some claim this upheaval is overdue and I don’t disagree. There is a well-documented history of powerful people getting away with egregious behavior. In general, it’s a good thing when society seeks justice and accountability for everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

With that good, however, often comes obstacles that need to be navigated carefully and flawed human beings have a mixed history in those efforts to say the least. We’ve already seen some of that in how some have responded to the anti-harassment movement. Some are going so far as to avoid women entirely to minimize the risk. This is an extreme reaction, but one in keeping with the law of proportional backlash.

It has been frustrating for those who genuinely seek to improve gender relations. It has also made for easy sources of outrage with one side calling the other misogynist, patriarchal bigots and the other calling them regressive, whiny leftists. There’s a lot of room for arguments and plenty of opportunities for shouting, especially in the age of social media.

 

It’s still a relevant question for people caught up in the current state of gender politics, avoiding accusations of sexual misconduct and maintaining amicable relations among the genders. Crimes should be prosecuted and punished. Good people, whether they’re men, women, or something in between, should be free to engage with one another without fear of getting caught up in fervor.

Recently, the reigning sexiest man alive, Idris Elba, offered an easy solution to all those arguing about the current state of gender relations that many have rallied around. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he had this to say to those worried about navigating the anti-harassment movement.

“It’s only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide.”

It’s a simple, logical, almost mundane piece of advice. Many loudly cheered it as a welcome change of pace from the more complicated responses given by Matt Damon and Henry Cavill. When you’re the sexiest man alive and a top choice for the next James Bond, it’s easy to offer a simple solution that carries significant weight.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mr. Elba. He’s a great actor and, by all accounts, one of Hollywood’s most likable personalities. In a perfect world, his words would not be controversial and require no further scrutiny. Sadly, we don’t live in that world.

I won’t go so far as to say that Mr. Elba is dead wrong. I won’t say he’s more than half-right, either. More than anything else, his comments are incomplete. They’re coming from a famous celebrity who also happens to be a tall, dark, handsome man whose success often leads to a considerable detachment from reality, as often happens in Hollywood.

If Mr. Elba had just said that men who have something to hide will probably face more difficulty than others, then he would be spot on. Whether you’re a famous celebrity or some ordinary person living their lives, having nothing to hide makes you far less likely to be on the wrong end of a sexual assault accusation.

In the era of smart phones, social media, and hacked emails, it’s considerably harder for anyone to hide their misconduct, sexual or otherwise. If anything, celebrities and powerful politicians are the only ones with the resources to hide their misdeeds and even that isn’t always enough. For non-celebrities, though, the resources are far more limited and this is where the merit of Mr. Elba’s words comes up short.

There are many ways to break down why simply having nothing to hide is not the most effective strategy for navigating the current landscape of gender politics. To best illustrate why it’s so shallow, though, we need only know the story of Brian Banks.

This guy’s story will upset/move you. You have been warned.

If you’re not familiar with that name, then chances are Mr. Elba isn’t either. His story is a tragedy with a bittersweet ending. Back in 2002, he was a promising a promising football player from Long Beach, California who had already committed to playing college football at USC.

Then, a classmate of his accused him of raping her in a stairway. Rather than face the possibility of 41 years to life in prison, Banks accepted a plea deal that included five years in prison, five years of probation, and having to register as a sex offender. By every measure, his life and his once-promising future was over. On top of it all, Banks was completely innocent.

That’s not just what a court eventually ruled. The accuser actually confessed that she made it up, adding that it was part of an effort with her mother to sue the school for money. It’s every bit as deplorable as it sounds. By the time this came out, though, it was 2012. He still served five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and lost out on his once promising football career.

Brian Banks followed Mr. Elba’s advice to the letter. He had nothing to hide. That still wasn’t enough, though. His life was still derailed and had the accuser not confessed, he probably wouldn’t have been able to rebuild his life to the extent that he has.

It’s easy for someone like Mr. Elba to give that advice and just as easy for him to practice it. As I noted before, he’s rich, successful, handsome, and respected. If someone tried to falsely accuse him of sexual misconduct, he wouldn’t have a hard time fighting it. Beyond his reputation as the sexiest man alive, he has access to the best legal defense that obscene wealth can buy.

People like Brain Banks don’t have that luxury. Exceedingly few individuals do. Banks plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit because, without those resources, there was a real possibility that he would’ve gotten a much worse sentence. He’s actually fortunate that he managed to escape the fate he did. Others, however, weren’t so lucky.

Brian Banks’ story, alone, is tangible proof that Mr. Elba’s advice is incomplete. Sadly, there are other stories like this and some of them have far less pleasant outcomes. According to the Innocence Project, there are an estimated 20,000 innocent people serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. They too had nothing to hide, but were convicted anyways.

There’s men like Randolph Arledge, who served 29 years for a rape and murder that he did not commit. The evidence that convicted him was based entirely on informant testimony.

There’s also the story of Marvin Anderson, who had no criminal record when he was convicted of a brutal rape for which he served 20 years in prison.

There’s also the case of Ted Bradford, who spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. There wasn’t even any physical evidence tying him to the crime.

There’s the case of David Johns Bryson, who served 20 years for heinous crime involving kidnapping and rape. A combination of bad forensic science and misguided police tactics did him in.

These men are not celebrities. They’re not rich movie producers or well-connected politicians. They’re just ordinary men trying to live their lives. They had no more to hide than anyone else. That still wasn’t enough. In some cases, they were the victims of mistaken identity. In others, they were the targets of a vindictive accuser. In every case, their lives were irreparably damaged.

I still don’t doubt Mr. Elba’s sincerity. Even those who applaud his words probably don’t realize the flaws in his advice. Names like Brian Banks probably don’t ever cross their mind. Even if it did, Mr. Elba’s words present a clean, concise response to those who express concern about the larger impacts of the anti-harassment movement. For those looking for an easy recourse to a difficult problem, it has a lot of appeal.

That’s the biggest problem with simple solutions to complex problems. The narrative of the anti-harassment movement, or any social movement, cannot accommodate that much complexity. If it did, the narrative wouldn’t be as compelling. As I’ve noted before, the idea that there’s this brave movement of empowered women standing up to serial abusers has all the makings of a feel-good Hollywood story.

The reality, though, is far less ideal. Men like Brian Banks found that out the hard way. If the work of the Innocence Project is any indication, there are probably plenty more who never had anything to hide, but still got convicted. For them, Mr. Elba’s advice will only compound one kind of injustice with another.

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Kamala Khan Vs. America Chavez: How To Succeed (And Fail) With Female Superheroes

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It shouldn’t be that difficult or controversial to create compelling female superheroes. In a perfect world, it would be no different than creating quality male heroes. As long as they’re compelling, enjoyable, and foster great stories, that should be enough.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. You could even argue it has become even worse in recent years for female superheroes because they’ve become entwined with identity politics. It’s no longer sufficient for a female hero to just be likable and interesting. They have to take part in the never-ending whining contest that dominates outrage culture.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, this really frustrates me. I get that comics, like any medium, often reflect the issues of the time. That’s not new and comics have taken positions in those issues. Iconic stories have been crafted around them. The current situation with female superheroes, however, is less a reflection of the times and more a liability.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to single out two female superheroes, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and America “Miss America” Chavez. Both characters were created within the past 10 years. They’ve also been cited as prominent figures in the recent push for diversity within comics that has caused a lot of uproar or all the wrong reasons.

What sets them apart is that one character, Kamala Khan, has become a success story by most measures. Since her debut issue in February 2014, she has become popular and beloved. She has received and won numerous accolades and her graphic novels have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. I consider myself a fan of hers. She’s one of my favorite female heroes.

On the other end of that spectrum is America Chavez. She debuted in 2011 and went onto have her own ongoing series. Unlike Kamala, though, her series received no accolades, sold poorly, and did nothing to endear her to fans of superhero comics. She has had opportunities to establish herself as a quality female hero. With few exceptions, she has failed at every turn.

These two characters represent a stark dichotomy in the current world of female superheroes. One provides a template for success. The other is a cautionary tale of how not to create a compelling female superhero in the current climate. It’s pretty striking how two characters created within a similar cultural environment can go in such wildly different directions. However, that difference also carries with it plenty of lessons.

To be fair to the medium I love, creating female superheroes today is very different compared to past decades. If Wonder Woman, Storm, Carol Danvers, or Supergirl were created today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. They came out at different times and under different circumstances. Those circumstances played a key role in how they became iconic.

Great female superheroes, and quality female characters in general, have traits that allow them to resonate in any era. However, the timing and influences have to be right for them to carve a place in popular culture. Kamala Khan and America Chavez dealt with similar circumstances when they debuted. That makes them a good case study in how female superheroes can succeed and fail.


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

I still remember the day I read Ms. Marvel #1. I hadn’t been planning to buy it. I remember clearly that it was a light week, in terms of comics. I happened to have a few extra bucks to spend. I had heard that there was going to be a new Ms. Marvel. Having been a fan of Carol Danvers, I decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did because that one fateful issue made me a Kamala Kahn fan for years to come. The story it told struck all the right chords. It presented a character who felt real, genuine, and relatable. The fact that she was a girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants was secondary. She still felt like a character that I could be friends with if she were real.

The reasons why Kamala was so endearing had little to do with how many diversity points she scored and everything to do with how the writer, G. Willow Wilson, went about developing her. She spent almost the entire first issue just revealing who Kamala was and what sort of life she had. We learn about her family, her friends, her hopes, her dreams, and even her favorite hobbies.

She quickly becomes more than just another teenage character. She’s a self-professed fangirl who writes fan fiction, plays MMO games, and loves gyros. Wilson approached developing Kamala the same way Stan Lee approached developing Peter Parker. She developed the personality before turning them into a superhero.

When Kamala finally does get her powers, Wilson establishes a solid reason for why she’s a hero. Just getting powers isn’t enough. Unlike Peter Parker, however, she doesn’t need a loved one to die. Being a fan of superheroes and having decent parents puts her in a position to make that choice without anyone dying. That, alone, makes her worthy of admiration.

From that point forward, it’s easy to root for Kamala. She carries herself as someone you want to root for. She personifies how fans of superhero comics are inspired by their heroes. Her having a chance to be a hero like the ones she idolizes isn’t just endearing. It’s special. That’s why she succeeds and why it’s very likely we’ll see her enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point.


Why America Chavez Failed

Take everything I just said about why Kamala Khan works and why she’s so lovable. Then, reverse it completely. That’s basically who America Chavez is and why she’s more a joke than a success.

On paper, America has a lot going for her. She’s not just another generic female hero. She’s Latina, she’s a lesbian, and she comes from a very different world, literally and figuratively. In terms of diversity points, she checks as many boxes as Kamala. She has her own unique style and she even uses a familiar moniker that has been successfully used by others.

Beyond those traits, however, there’s nothing about her character or her story that will get superhero fans cheering. She’s not relatable like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan. She’s from a place called Utopian Parallel, which is exactly as boring as it sounds. Her world was threatened with destruction, but her parents sacrificed themselves to save it. They’re the only respectable heroes in her story.

America, for reasons that are poorly told and poorly developed, decides to prove that she’s as good a hero as her parents. Her world is a utopia. It doesn’t need her. As a result, she just looks for a world that needs heroes and happens to choose one that has a massive glut of them. Already, her judgment is questionable.

If you’re expecting me to explain the depths of why she’s a hero and how she distinguishes herself, I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s the extent of her heroic journey. She doesn’t answer the hero’s call as much as she looks for an excuse. She doesn’t work her way into the world of heroism. She just throws herself into it and skips the part that makes it a meaningful story.

It certainly doesn’t help that she’s grossly overpowered in a way that makes every battle feel boring. Unlike other powerful characters, including Superman or Captain Marvel, there’s no real intrigue to her abilities. Whereas Kamala Khan and Peter Parker struggle, seeing their powers as burdens at times, America Chavez rarely strains herself. When she does, it feels forced and contrived.

On top of all that, America never comes off as a likable person. In nearly every scene she’s in, she carries herself with an in-your-face, screw-you, I’m-better-than-everyone attitude that isn’t the least bit endearing. She basically tries too hard to be a badass female hero, but forgets the part where heroes are actually supposed to be admirable.

It’s not enough to just punch a Nazi, which she does at one point. Being a hero means embodying ideals that go beyond gender politics. America Chavez’s story is so contrived, at times, that it feels like the most shameless kind of pandering. It’s why those who bemoan Marvel’s diversity push often cite America Chavez as the personification of everything wrong with that effort. Sadly, she gives them plenty to work with.


Lessons For The Future

I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. I even hope that, at some point, America Chavez becomes a solid character. There’s plenty of room for new characters that resonate with everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of established characters, either. Heroes can be anyone. That’s what makes them icons.

Now, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like Kamala. I don’t deny that she has her flaws and she’s had some pretty unflattering moments. I also understand that America Chavez has her share of fans who think I’m not being fair to her. I don’t claim that my take on her is definitive.

I singled these two characters out because I believe they embody the struggle facing female superheroes in the existing cultural climate. Like any creative endeavor, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Kamala Khan and America Chavez provide important lessons on what to do and what to avoid. They include, but aren’t restricted to, the following.

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

Lesson #2: Appeal to everyone and not just a select few

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

Lesson #4: Give the character a distinct and endearing voice

Lesson #5: Don’t just rely on punching Nazis

There are many other lessons to be learned from characters like Kamala Khan and America Chavez. Some of those lessons have to be learned the hard way, but they’re worth learning. More quality female superheroes can only help the genre, as a whole. Superheroes, by definition, are supposed to inspire others to be better. That inspiration need not be restricted to gender, race, or any other distinction.

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Why I’m Not Overly Excited About Voting

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I’m bracing myself right now because I’m about to express a sentiment that’s going to put me at odds with a lot of people here in America. It’s a sentiment that runs contrary to some pretty loud rhetoric that has been brewing over the past two years. Some of it has even come from close family members. Knowing I’ll probably upset them too, I’ll just come out and say it.

I’m not that excited about voting.

I’ll give my fellow American’s a moment to stop fuming. For everyone else, I think a larger explanation is warranted. Bear with me because these are sensitive times for freedom, democracy, and everything in between.

Today, my country will conduct its mid-term election. It occurs every four years, right in between Presidential elections. These elections are a critical part of the foundation on which the United States government is built. These are the elections in which a sizable chunk of governors, senators, and representatives are elected.

While mid-term elections rarely generate the same voter turnout of Presidential elections, this year is different. The impact of the 2016 Presidential Election has galvanized the passions of both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives seek to maintain their hold on power. Liberals seek to re-establish power after some of the worst setbacks in recent memory. To them, the stakes are very high.

I’m not entirely convinced of that. In fact, I feel like those stakes are so inflated that it makes me feel even less excited about voting. I see people in the media, on message boards, and within political circles calling this election the most important mid-term in history. That makes me suspect they have a narrow concept of history.

Now, I don’t deny the sincerity of those who say stuff like this. I get that they’re genuinely concerned about the direction of the country they love. They have this ideal vision for how they want America to be and getting like-minded people to vote is part of realizing that vision. Whether it’s reigning in the President, outlawing abortion, or legalizing weed, they have a fantasy that they want to make reality.

As someone who writes a lot about the sexy kind of fantasies, I can appreciate that to some extent. When I was younger, I even entertained similar visions. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become less enchanted by my country’s democratic processes. The reasons for that have less to do with the content of those visions and more to do with the unique quirks of American elections.

The first complications surrounding American democracy, and one that sets it apart from other democratic countries, is that we don’t elect the President by a popular vote. We use something called the Electoral College. Simply put, our votes don’t go towards who we want to be President. They go towards electing the people who go onto elect the President.

If that sounds confusing, then you’re starting to see why I’m skeptical about voting. The logic behind the Electoral College made sense 200 years ago when trying to ensure that heavily populated states didn’t gain too much power over all the others. A lot has changed in 200 years and I’m not just talking about the prevalence of powdered wigs.

Since I became eligible to vote, I’ve seen two of the past three Presidents get elected without winning the popular vote. That means the candidate that got the most votes did not win the election. Call me cynical, but that does not sound very democratic.

To be fair, the Electoral College applies only to the President. Other representatives like governors, senators, and mayors are elected by way of popular vote. While that is more democratic, on paper, the logistics still aren’t ideal. That’s due to additional factors like gerrymandering, a practice that dilutes democracy to the point of watered down light beer.

Simply put, it ensures that your vote only partially matters because you didn’t necessarily pick the candidate. The candidate picked you by making sure you lived in their voting district. It’s a big reason why incumbents have such high re-election rates. It doesn’t matter how voting trends change. All that matters is aligning districts with a certain type of voters.

It’s not quite on the same level as the phony elections conducted by dictators, but it sends a painfully clear message. No matter how passionate you are at voting, there’s a good chance that it has little bearing on the outcome. That doesn’t mean your vote is thrown away. It still counts. It just doesn’t matter and I’m not the only one who has reached this conclusion.

Most of the time, you live in an area where the overwhelming majority of people align themselves with a particular part of the political spectrum. Districts located in rural areas almost always vote conservative. Districts located in cities almost always vote liberal. That divide has only widened over the years, especially since I began voting.

Some of that goes beyond direct influences like gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics. None of those tactics would even work if not for the predictable psychology of the average voter. In a perfect world, every voter goes to the polls as an objective, impartial citizens who weighs the worth of every candidate. However, we live in an imperfect world full of many imperfect people.

According to analysis of past elections, most people adopt the voting patterns of their parents. It’s not a minor factor, either. By a substantial margin, your vote was mostly determined when you were still a kid. That’s not a flaw in the system as much as it is a flaw in perspective.

If you grow up in a conservative environment, then you’ll vote in accord with conservative candidates. The same applies if you live in a liberal environment. The area I live is pretty liberal, for the most part. I’ve seen the polls for my candidates. The outcome is pretty much a given, no matter how I vote.

On top of all that, and it’s more than enough to temper my enthusiasm for democratic processes, voting in America is extremely inconvenient. It’s not a national holiday. It’s on a Tuesday in the middle of the week and often involves standing in long lines at poorly-staffed polling places. Sure, you can cast an absentee vote, but that process has its own set of complications.

Taken together, I find it frustrating, as a voter. The older I get, the more resigned I’ve become. Each passing year, I see more and more flaws in the system. I see reprehensible human beings and shameless hypocrites win elections, time and again. I also see the list of candidates and groan at my lack of options.

Despite all this, I’m still told that voting is important. Voting is what separates us from tyranny. Ignoring the historical fact that some tyrants come to power through democracy, I’m supposed to believe that my vote will help further the ideals my country espouses. As much as I love my country, I just have a hard time believing that.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m pretty cynical about voting and the current democratic processes in place for the United States. I’m not completely resigned, though. I still intend to vote, but I’m under no illusions. I know it won’t change much in the grand scheme of things. Like renewing my driver’s license, it’s part of my civic duty.

Regardless of who wins and who gets voted out, I can already sense where this narrative will go from here. I have a feeling that as soon as this day passes, the 2020 Election will be subsequently billed as the most important election in history. Just like before, the act of voting will be framed as taking part in a battle against a fascist army led by Darth Vader and Joseph Stalin.

That narrative, in my opinion, will do more to undermine voting than help it in the long run. At the end of the day, elections come and go. Leaders change, politics evolve, and demographics shift the cultural landscape. Not every election will go down in history as the most important. The act of voting in those elections won’t matter that much in the long run. It’s still worth doing, but it’s also worth maintaining perspective along the way.

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