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How “Bojack Horseman” Offers A (Refreshingly) Balanced Take On Addiction

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People are complicated. Every person deals with their own set of complications. Some are more serious than others. A person who suffers from crippling addiction doesn’t face the same challenges as someone who has an extreme fear of clowns. Both require different approaches to deal with it and not every person is going to handle it the same way.

I suspect that most people would agree with everything I just stated. Most have probably endured their share of possible complications or dealt with someone who has. It’s one of those basic, but understated facts of life. However, when it comes to complicated problems like addiction and depression, popular media tends to do a lousy job of portraying those problems.

It’s not just that issues like addiction, drug abuse, or depression are overly simplified. The characters involved rarely reflect the complexities surrounding this issue. Look a most TV shows, movies, or books and you tend to get a stripped-down version of these issues. It usually plays out like this.

A character starts the story happy and healthy, but vulnerable and foolish.

Said character makes a few bad choices that triggers the problem.

That character goes through upheavals, losses, and setbacks.

The character hits rock bottom, realizes they have a problem, and decides to get help.

Whatever help they get magically works, the character’s issue is solved, and the credits roll to some upbeat song meant to sell the soundtrack.

I understand most people don’t expect the complex struggles of real people to be boiled down into a half-hour TV show or a two-hour movie. To some extent, these stories sell the fantasy that difficult problems have simple solutions. It’s comforting, but it can be dangerous to those who need help that doesn’t involve magical solutions that leave time for commercial breaks.

Very few TV shows or movies have the time to get into all the nuance surrounding these issues, especially for problems such as addiction. More than any other issue, TV and movies tend to get the nature of addiction very wrong. Addiction, itself, is already subject to all sorts of myths and misunderstandings. That’s even more troubling in the middle of a serious opioid epidemic.

For that very reason, it’s genuinely refreshing to see a popular TV show handle the subject in a more balanced manner. Even if that show involves anthropomorphic horse men that sound like Will Arnett, a little balance goes a long way, especially when dealing with real issues that impact real people.

That show, of course, is “Bojack Horseman.” It’s a show I’ve mentioned and praised before for how it confronts the myth of happy endings. It’s also a show that sets itself apart by lampooning and deconstructing the world of celebrities, happiness, politics, popular culture, and injustice. The fact the show can do this while also being funny, entertaining, and genuine is a testament to the show’s quality and brilliance.

I’ve been following this show since it aired. I’ve watched it grow through several seasons, following a unique path to acclaim and success. I was among those disappointed to hear that the show will be ending after Season 6. I don’t know if there will ever be another show that tackled so many sensitive issues in such a balanced way, but that makes it’s handling of addiction in Season 6 even more impressive.

Since the show’s first season, addiction has been both a common theme and a volatile catalyst. In fact, the very first scene of the first episode makes clear that Bojack has a drinking problem. It’s not subtle in the slightest. When he’s not melting down or mentally torturing himself, he’s drinking heavily or ingesting copious amounts of drugs.

Sometimes, he’s downright creative with drug use.

Throughout the course of the show, this has caused more than a few problems to say the least. People have died. Hearts of been broken. Souls have been crushed, regardless of whether you’re a man, woman, or horseman. These moments have helped give the show a level of dramatic impact that few others have matched.

It has also portrayed addiction with more tact, nuance, and understanding than any show I’ve seen to date. If you or anyone you know have dealt with addiction, then this show “Bojack Horseman” offers a compelling message that’s worth heeding.

Bojack’s addiction issues started off simple, but over the course of five seasons, it has become clear that there’s much more to his self-destructive behavior. It’s not just that he’s a celebrity and celebrities tend to get away with more than most, which the show touches on in some hilariously memorable moments. His life, his upbringing, and his choices have created a complex web of influences that fuel his addiction.

It’s not just that he’s depressed.

It’s not just that his parents were neglectful, hateful, and downright cruel.

It’s not just that he betrayed his best friend, who helped make him a success.

It’s not just that he slept with his best friend’s girlfriend.

There are many other gross misdeeds I could list. A lot happens over course of five seasons and it gets very dark. However, the show never attempts to pin Bojack’s problems with addiction on a singular cause. In Season 6, he attempts to finally confront those problems, but doing so doesn’t mean finding simple solutions. In fact, the solutions are prone to complications of their own.

The first three episodes of Season 6 has Bojack doing something important in the context of treating addiction. It has him look at his life, as a whole, and not just focus on the triggers that inspire his self-destructive behavior. Like addicts in the real world, Bojack learns that there’s no one thing that caused his problems. It’s not a single choice, either. Unlike the light-hearted show that made him famous, life is more complicated than that.

In some respects, drinking gave him the comfort and warmth that his parents never gave him. In others, it allowed him to overcome crippling social anxieties, which only got elevated when he became a celebrity. It wasn’t just that he was dependent on the alcohol to give him a quick dopamine hit to his brain. He came to rely on it, so much so that it incurred more and more complications.

Another part of what makes this portrayal feel balanced is that Bojack’s addictions are never framed as the sole source of his problems. Some of his most regrettable choices in the show happened without the aid of alcohol or drugs. He can’t use addiction as an excuse. Even though he tried to in earlier seasons, he’s not making those same excuses in Season 6.

It’s not a smooth process. Few plots in “Bojack Horseman” play out that way. Bojack struggles with his treatment, which is a novel concept for most shows that tackle the issue. Even when he’s not drinking, it still haunts him. That’s another thing addicts in TV shows rarely show. Once they get treatment, it becomes an afterthought. In real life, treating addiction is an ongoing struggle and always will be.

That’s a tough message for any show to depict, let alone one that needs to resolve things within 22 minutes or 26 episodes. On top of that, the act of not resolving serious issues, such as addiction, means the show can’t have a happy ending. That’s something most shows avoid, but “Bojack Horseman” is different.

On multiple occasions, the show points out how flawed the idea of happy endings are, often in depressing ways. At the same time, though, this is necessary context with which to frame addiction. For someone who has as many issues as Bojack, a happy ending just wouldn’t make sense.

It won’t end like this. It just won’t.

He can’t just come to a profound realization in the backdrop of sad music and suddenly be cured. His story and his struggles keep unfolding. Like real addiction, confronting and treating it is a complicated process that can often last a lifetime. It’s frustrating and depressing, but that’s the nature of life and “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t run from that.

With the second part of Season 6 scheduled for release in January, 2020, the end of “Bojack Horseman” is near. What this means for Bojack, his addiction, and the consequences of his choices remains to be seen. No matter how it ends, the show has achieved a great deal by daring to confront the complications of life that most avoid.

The fact this show can achieve this through a cartoon horse voiced by Will Arnett is an even greater accomplishment. While most people will never be able to relate to a half-man/half-horse former sitcom star, they might be able to relate to his struggles with addiction. Sometimes, being able to deal with things in a quirky, animated show helps make those things less daunting in the real world.

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Five Terrible Life Lessons I Learned From Sitcoms

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As a kid, I loved cartoons and comics. I think I’ve made my love of superhero comics abundantly clear on multiple occasions. However, I had other guilty pleasures as a kid that weren’t as common. Among those pleasures were sitcoms.

I’m not just referring to the popular or iconic ones, either. There was a time in my life where I would literally watch any sitcom that happened to be on TV at the moment. It didn’t matter if the premise was stupid. I still watched and I still enjoyed it. I certainly have my favorites. “Married With Children” and “Malcom in the Middle” are near the top of that list.

A big part of that love came from how I consumed them. My awesome mother also enjoyed sitcoms. I often watched them with her. She even let me watch sitcoms with themes that weren’t exactly kid friendly. That didn’t stop us from laughing hysterically at episodes of “Seinfeld” together. Those were good times.

As fun as they were, I also feel like I gleaned some less-than-helpful lessons from those shows. Unlike cartoons or kids shows, sitcoms involve real people who deal with real situations. I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I knew a show that involved superheroes, killer robots, and talking turtles was wholly unrealistic. Most kids with functional brains know that.

Sitcoms were a bit trickier. When the people are real and the scenarios look real, your inexperienced can’t always make sense of it. Even as an adult, the message of a sitcom can become muddled, even if it’s not based on a ridiculous premise.

Since I probably watched more sitcoms as a kid than most people did as an adult, I think I’ve been exposed to those misguided messages more than most. As a result, I learned plenty of terrible life lessons that did not help when reality hit me with a few gut punches.

I’m not saying that sitcoms were the reasons for my problems, growing up. I don’t blame the sitcoms themselves. I think that, in terms of the bigger picture, the themes of these shows tend to get complicated when it clashes with reality. In the same way fairy tales and porn create unrealistic expectations of romance and sex, sitcoms present false assumptions for making sense of the world.

What follows are five of those terrible lessons that I surmised from my excessive sitcom assumption. If you have other lessons you’d like to add, please share them in the comments. Some sitcoms tell better lessons than others, but these are some of the worst.


Terrible Lesson #1: All Great Romances Begin As Friendships

This lesson preyed off my inherent love of romance. While superhero comics offered plenty in terms of in-depth romance and melodrama, sitcoms were a bit more limited, thanks to their half-hour format. It was a tough, but not insurmountable limitation. Unfortunately, a great many sitcoms relied heavily on flawed, incomplete concepts of romance.

The most common involved romances that begin as friendships. Shows like “Friends” built almost every meaningful romance around this concept. While it wasn’t the only sitcom that did this, it’s by far the worst offender in sending the message that an epic romance starts with a great friendship.

While that makes for good TV, it’s a very flawed approach in the real world. I’m not saying that being friends with someone can’t lead to meaningful romance. It definitely can. However, shows like “Friends” give the impression that this is the only romance that has true depth. Every other romance is just flat and uninspiring, by comparison.

In the real world, seeking friendship is a good thing, but using that as a pre-cursor to romance can come off as deceitful. Sometimes, a person wants a friend more than a love interest and if that’s the only reason you’re friends with them, then that just comes off as insincere and a little creepy.

That’s not to say that sitcoms don’t contain meaningful romance lessons. This just isn’t one of them.


Terrible Lesson #2: Everyone Always Has Ulterior Motives

Chief among the hallmarks of sitcoms are the conflicting motivations of the characters involved. Whether it’s Charlie Harper trying to hook up with a new woman in “Two and a Half Men” or Kelly Bundy trying to win a modeling gig in “Married With Children,” those motivations are rarely that complicated. The only conflict arises when they encounter others whose interests aren’t in line with theirs.

In a half-hour sitcom, there’s little room for characters whose agenda has nothing to do with that of the main characters. Unlike real life, everyone around these characters is either looking to help or thwart their efforts. There’s rarely anyone who just wants to live their life and doesn’t care if someone like Kelly Bundy gets a modeling gig for a pest control company.

While that makes logistical sense within the context of a sitcom, it has some nasty implications for the real world. It further fosters a mentality that anyone who isn’t helping you is actively opposing you. That us versus them mentality already brings out the worst in people, both in the real and fictional world.

At least in the fictional world, that mentality is somewhat justified. It often is the case that the people around you, including close friends and family, have ulterior motives. In many sitcoms, close family members are the ones who screw you over the worst. It’s not a healthy approach to dealing with the world. If you can’t trust your family, then who can you trust?


Terrible Lesson #3: Every Authority Figure Conspires Against You

When it comes to villains or antagonists, there isn’t much room for nuance in sitcoms. You’re not going to find a Walter White within those constraints. Most of the time, the bad guys in a story are painfully obvious. That, in and of itself, isn’t too big a problem. Villains don’t have to be complex to work, even in a sitcom.

However, if a sitcom does have a villain of any kind, it’s almost guaranteed to be an authority figure. They can be a parent, a teacher, or an older sibling. If they have even a shred of authority, no matter how arbitrary, you can assume they’re going to oppose the protagonists in some form or another.

Whether it’s Red Foreman clamping down on the pot smoking in “That 70s Show” or Lois being a tyrannical mom in “Malcom in the Middle,” the authority figures are always the problem. There’s really not much to their villainy. They exist solely to prevent the main characters from having fun and achieving their goals.

Now, I’m not going to claim authority figures can’t be corrupt. There are real cases of authority figures acting like real villains. There are also cases in which authority figures do genuine good. Whether it’s the leader of a country or the chief of a police unit, it is possible for someone to wield authority over others and not be an asshole.

If your understanding of authority comes solely from sitcoms, then that’s like claiming pigs can do algebra. It’s not just that power corrupts. In sitcoms, any kind of power corrupts and it does so completely. It’s as simplistic as it is absurd. In reality, there are authority figures worthy of respect and sitcoms seem to go out of their way to avoid that point.


Terrible Lesson #4: There’s Never A Reason For Someone Being A Bully

In the same way sitcoms present a simplistic view of authority and villains, they take an equally bland approach when it comes to villains. For the most part, bullies in sitcoms aren’t characters. They might as well be robots programmed to insult, denigrate, or annoy the main characters at every turn. There’s no deeper motivation beyond that. They’re just mean, unrepentant assholes.

Characters like Libby Chessler in “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and Harley Keener in “Boy Meets World” don’t exist to give depth to a sitcom. As bullies, they’re function is to present obstacles and setbacks for others. Giving them a reason for being a bully, be it a personality disorder or past trauma, would hinder their ability to achieve that function.

While this makes sense in the context of plotting a sitcom, it grossly simplifies the concept of bullying. When it happens in the real world, it’s nothing like what we see in a sitcom. I know this because I dealt with bullies in my childhood. It did not play out like any sitcom I ever saw.

Bullies aren’t robots fueled by the whimpering cries of their victims. They are human beings too and while few will sympathize with them, few people are born bullies. They may not even see themselves as one. There are some deeper complexities to the mental makeup of a bully and sitcoms pretend those complexities don’t against.

Granted, it’s difficult for a half-hour TV show to explore and flesh out the personality of a bully. It’s considerably easier to make them an unlikable asshole who helps glorify the main characters. As a result, it’s easy to see bullies as blunt instruments rather than people you need to deal with in your day-to-day life. In such a complicated world full of complicated people, it’s bound to cause problems beyond losing lunch money.


Terrible Lesson #5: Hard Work Is For Suckers

Let’s not lie to ourselves. Growing up, we tend not to appreciate hard work. Most of us go out of our way to avoid it or when we can’t, we take the path of least resistance. Many sitcoms reflect this sentiment. They certainly aren’t the reason why people avoid hard work. That inclination existed long before sitcoms, but they do take it to extremes that can be both hilarious and asinine.

In the world of sitcoms, hard work is tantamount to waterboarding. From Lucy standing on an assembly line in “I Love Lucy” to the over-the-top slacker behavior that plays out in “Workaholics,” hard work is only a step down from bullies. It’s something every major character either avoids or gets crushed by.

Sitcoms build entire plots around characters looking for a way to get out of hard work. Francis in “Malcom in the Middle” is the personification of this struggle. He once spent an entire episode willingly distracting himself from an overdue history assignment. While characters like him often pay a price for their slacking, it’s rarely a worse alternative than hard work.

In the world of sitcoms, you only work hard if you have your dream job. Since most people don’t get their dream job, hard work is basically tantamount to defeat. That’s the main take-away from sitcoms. Anyone with just a small amount of life experience knows how flawed that is.

Even when I was working a part-time job in high school, I learned the value of hard work very quickly. It’s a means to an end. It’s something that, when done right, gives you a sense of accomplishment. While we all can’t approach it with the same passion as Hank Hill, it does have value and sitcoms would have you believe that value doesn’t exist.


I still enjoy sitcoms. I still watch them regularly when there aren’t superhero movies or TV shows to see. While they can be funny and entertaining, they can also present a very flawed concept of life, people, and how to handle it. There are a lot of bad lessons to be learned from even great sitcoms, but if they make us a laugh, then I say that’s a price worth paying.

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Filed under human nature, media issues, romance, television

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

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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Filed under censorship, Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues, media issues, political correctness, sex in media, superhero comics, superhero movies, women's issues

Five Overused Romantic Sub-Plots (And How To Fix Them)

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Being a self-professed romance fan, I know more about the intricacies of romantic sub-plots than most men would ever dare admit. I’ve consumed an absurd amount of romantic media over the years and I’ve noticed more than a few common themes, some more endearing than others.

However, by consuming so much romantic content, I’ve also seen certain themes get overused and badly mishandled. I could list countless instances promising romantic sub-plots collapsing because it fell into a narrative trap. Sometimes, it’s because of poor writing. Sometimes, it’s because the story has too many constraints. I’ve even cited a few famous cases that exhibit both.

Whatever the case, it’s not hard to screw up a romantic sub-plot. I’ve done that more than a few times with the stories I’ve written. Lately, though, there are certain types of sub-plots that have lost their luster. They’ve either been done too many times or haven’t innovated in way too long.

Overused or not, I believe there are elements of these sub-plots that are worth saving. They just need some refinement and polish. What follows is a list of five overdone romantic sub-plots, why they’ve become so bland, and how to fix them. I’ve covered some of these elements before. This is just the romance lover in me offering some tips for future romance stories.


Romantic Sub-Plot #1: Best Friends Turned Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

I think you can thank sitcoms like “Friends” and movies like “Clueless” for this sub-plot to fall out of favor. Personally, I blame Ross and Rachel for giving this theme a bad name. They took the whole friends-falling-in-love plot way too far. Towards the end, it was more annoying than compelling.

These days, this sub-plot isn’t as common as it used to be. I think a lot of romance fans were burned out on it in the 1990s and early 2000s. There’s only so many times a character can say in so many words “I didn’t realize that what I was looking for was right here in front of me” and sound genuine.

How To Fix It

Simply put, this sub-plot needs to shake up the setting. Too many times, a story about friends becoming lovers is built around one friend having had feelings for the other over many years. That can be sweet when done right, but it’s way too easy to be done wrong. These days, it almost comes off as a long con or stalking.

To fix it, the emphasis needs to shift towards two characters undergoing major upheavals. Perhaps they go through a tragedy or trauma that changes the way they feel about other people. It can’t just be restricted to their friend/lover, either. This upheaval should affect their entire world and from there, they come together in a new way.

It has the potential to show two characters go through major growth as individuals, which eventually turns into growth as a couple. That kind of growth can work wonders for any romance and could offer something more meaningful than old friends hiding their feelings.


Romantic Sub-Plot #2: Love Triangles

Why It’s Overdone

I’ve already made my hatred of love triangles very clear. I’ve gone so far as to cite one from the X-men as the worst of all time. Beyond the comics, though, it’s not hard to see cases of this sub-plot done horribly wrong. Even contemporary romance like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” have made this troubled trope more insufferable.

Simply put, love triangles reduce everyone involved to prizes or plot devices. It’s next to impossible to make every character in a love triangle feel like a real character. It turns romantic development into a competition and in the long run, nobody wins and certain characters lose badly.

How To Fix It

I’m tempted to say that love triangles should be abandoned and killed with a 12-gauge shotgun, but I’m not a fan of throwing away romantic themes, no matter how much I despise them. For this particular theme, I think it needs more than just a fix. It needs a complete overhaul.

By that, it can’t just involve two people competing for someone else’s affection. That gets old fast. If there is going to be a love triangle, then it should actually take the time to show why someone is torn in the first place. It needs to be clear that someone genuinely loves more than one person and there’s a reason for that love.

This is also a sub-plot that may benefit from shifting taboos. Non-monogamy is becoming more mainstream and there aren’t many real romance stories about that idea that aren’t bad pornos. A love triangle has to stop being an either/or plot and become a why/how plot. There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure everyone involved gets some sort of emotional resolution that doesn’t involve someone getting screwed over.


Romantic Sub-Plot #3: Destined Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

If you’ve gone through any high school English class or are just familiar with certain literary traditions, you’ve probably seen this in all kinds of media. “Romeo and Juliet” is probably the most famous, but it still shows up frequently throughout romantic media. It’s prevalent in movies like “Titanic” and comics like “Superman.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for star-crossed lovers who are destined to fall in love, but it’s a very bland sub-plot. There’s no real sense of conflict. You know two characters are going to end up together and where’s the intrigue there?

How To Fix It

For this sub-plot, I think a simple shift in context would help. Most romance featuring destined lovers emphasis how they come together, despite the obstacles in front of them. I think it might be more compelling to explore why these characters are star-crossed to begin with. Is it just destiny or are there other forces at work?

There are a lot of factors that go into romance, even those of the non-destined variety. Why not explore the concept of destiny, as it relates to love? Why not dig a little deeper into the intricacies of how it unites people so completely? That wouldn’t just offer a meta-perspective of love, as a plot device. It would give us all an opportunity to reconsider what it means to be in love.


Romantic Sub-Plot #4: Love At First Sight

Why It’s Overdone

This sub-plot is very similar to the destined lovers trope. It’s often a pre-cursor to two people finding out they’re destined to be together. For many of the same reasons, it’s pretty bland and basic. One character sees another, some sappy music starts playing, and the love story is effectively laid out.

We see it happen very overtly in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic.” We see it manifest in some form in most romantic comedies. A character just sees someone they find attractive and that becomes the catalyst for their love. It’s sweet, but not very deep and it has just become too predictable at this point. When two people fall in love at first sight, what other story is there to tell?

How To Fix It

This one can’t be fixed with the same methods as the destined lovers sub-plot. This is one of those plots that doesn’t have to be radically altered, but definitely needs fresh nuance. Finding that nuance means injecting more than just love into the mix when two characters first meet.

The first encounter between two characters is always pivotal. It helps set the tone for their relationship, romantic and otherwise. To make this sub-plot work in new ways, characters need to intrigue each other in new ways. It can’t be enough that they’re attractive. There has to be something else about them.

Maybe the character has a skill that someone has never seen before. Maybe the character causes someone to re-think a past assumption. Maybe it sends them on a new journey that their love interest can join. There are many opportunities here. There doesn’t have to just be one.


Romantic Sub-Plot #5: Sex Complicating Love

Why It’s Overdone

This one is probably the most overtly sexual romantic sub-plot that also happens to be the most predictable. Ironically, it’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” that summed it up best. Things go from “Don’t worry, it won’t get weird” to “It got weird, didn’t it?” That’s every sex-complicating-love story in a nutshell.

This one also has the burden of being weighed down by long-standing sexual taboos. While it may seem like those taboos have faded in the 21st century, it’s still the slutty women and stud men who die first in slasher movies. Sex, even in a romance story, still comes off as something dirty that somehow undermines a romance.

Even though sexual attitudes have evolved a great deal, the idea that sex complicates/ruins a relationship hasn’t moved very far. It’s why sex tends to be an afterthought in modern romances. Sometimes, it’s ignored or assumed and that’s just a waste of quality sexual chemistry.

How To Fix It

As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve been working on that for years. While I can’t claim to have a definitive answer, I have surmised a few ideas turn sex from a complication to a catalyst. It doesn’t have to be overly titillating or pornographic, although that can work. It just has to supplement the romance rather than subvert it.

Sex in romance is often treated like an endgame. It’s marks the culmination rather than the progression of a relationship. I believe that’s a missed opportunity. In any romance, sex should function as a progression, of sorts. It takes the relationship to a new stage, one where new opportunities for emotional and personal growth emerge.

When two characters have sex, it can be more than just a chance to depict genitals and female breasts. It can be an exercise of intimacy where two characters strengthen their bond, rather than sully it. That gives greater meaning to the sexiness and nothing makes romance hotter than genuinely meaningful sex.

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The Humor In Mutilating Men Versus The Atrocity Of Harming Women

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It’s one of the most traumatic things a man can experience, the permanent damage or total removal of his penis. Whether by accident or intentional violence, he’s badly injured on a physical physical and psychological level. His ability to identify as a man, experience intimacy with others, or just feel basic pleasure is irreparably damaged.

Just mentioning the possibility of losing his penis will make most men cringe. Joke all you want about how much men glorify their genitals, but it really is an important part of their bodies and their identities. Losing it is like losing a limb, which does plenty to cause serious mental trauma. Add losing a key aspect of their masculinity to the mix and that trauma becomes amplified.

Despite that trauma, men losing their genitals is fodder for comedy. Recently, Netflix released a movie called “The Package,” the plot of which is built entirely around a man who loses his penis in an accident. That movie, if you look it up on IMDB, is listed as a comedy. Imagine, for a moment, a movie that tried to make a comedy out of female genital mutilation. How much outrage would that generate?

There’s nothing funny about women’s bodies getting mutilated or even harmed in any serious way. For men, though, it’s actually a pretty common trope. You don’t have to look too deep into the history of media to find jokes about men losing their genitals.

It’s a famous line in “The Big Leboswki.”

It’s a recurring theme in “Fight Club.”

It’s a sub-plot in an episode of “Rick and Morty.”

It’s a primary plot in an episode of “Family Guy.”

Even in media that isn’t overtly comedic, it still becomes a joke. Just look up the various internet memes about Theon Greyjoy from “Game of Thrones” for proof of that. In each case, the mutilation of men and the loss of their masculinity is portrayed as something that’s inherently funny. The fact that Netflix made a movie about that premise shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Even in the cases of real stories about real men losing their genitals, it’s prone to plenty of humor. The most famous case is probably that of John Wayne Bobbitt, whose wife cut off his penis after he raped her. While Bobbitt was, by all accounts, a horribly abusive man who deserved plenty of condemnation for what he did, his name still inspires jokes.

When people say the name Bobbitt, they don’t think of all the abuse he imparted on his wife. They think of how funny it is that his wife cut his dick off. While he was able to get it re-attached, many other men aren’t so lucky. Whether it’s public perception or daytime talk shows, a man losing his penis is still seen as funny.

Conversely, any media that shows a woman being harmed in any way, even if it’s just a slap in the face, is seen as an irredeemable atrocity. Watch shows like “Married With Children” or “The Simpsons” and you’ll see plenty of scenes where Al Bundy and Homer Simpson badly injure themselves through their antics. However, there are exceedingly few scenes that ever lead to the women being harmed.

Anything that leaves any lasting scar on a woman is inherently abhorrent. There are even major international organizations that work to combat practices like female genital mutilation. When women lose their reproductive organs from disease or injury, it’s seen as a tragedy. Anyone who laughs at their pain is rightly scorned.

Why is this, though? Why is it that an entire comedy can be built around a man losing his penis while any plot that involves a woman getting hurt in any way is dead serious? That’s not an easy question to answer. It can’t be entirely attributed to the gender-driven  double standards that I’ve singled out before.

I don’t claim to know the full answer, but I think it’s worth discussing, if only for the sake of maintaining a balanced perspective. I don’t doubt that many have their theories. Some may attribute the humor we find in men getting mutilated to trends in modern feminism. I would strongly disagree with that.

I believe that this idea of laughing at male mutilation while gasping at female victimization preceded modern feminism by a great deal. I would go so far as to say it goes back much further than that. I believe this unique quirk in gender dynamics has roots in ancient pre-modern societies that transcend geography, culture, and ethnicity.

At the core of this phenomenon is one unpleasant, but inescapable truth. I’m probably going to upset some of my fellow men by saying this, but I think it needs to be said.

We NEED to be comfortable with men getting mutilated on some levels.

Take a moment to stop fuming. Then, take a moment to consider why we would need to be okay with this in both current and ancient societies. From a purely logistic standpoint, it makes sense.

For most of human history, men were expected to carry out the dangerous, back-breaking, body-maiming work that built our civilization. Regardless of location, culture, or traditions, putting men in these situations was necessary. Someone needed to fight the wars, plow the fields, hunt dangerous animals, and work in factories.

Until very recently, men had to fill that role because women were at a severe disadvantage due to the dangers and risks of child-rearing. In the pre-modern world, the most vulnerable individuals in a society were pregnant women, newborn infants, and women in labor. In 18th-century England alone, there were 25 deaths per 1,000 births.

With odds like that, there was a legitimate reason to give women extra protection and care that was not afforded to men. Men didn’t have the babies and no society could survive in the long run if it didn’t have a growing population. That’s why, for better or for worse, there are so many cultural and religious traditions that encourage women to remain in domestic roles.

Those same traditions, however, establish a dynamic requiring that we accept a certain level of male victimization. It’s one thing for a man to die in battle or having his genitals maimed in an accident. It’s quite another for a woman, who are tasked with birthing and caring for a new generation, to endure similar harm. Another man can still impregnate a healthy woman. No amount of men can impregnate an injured woman.

I know that dynamic is offensive to both feminists and men’s rights activists because it reduces their value to their reproductive capacity. I get why that’s offensive. Even I find it offensive, as a man. However, therein lies the most critical detail with respect to male mutilation versus male victimization.

These disparate standards, which predate the modern era by centuries, are still very much ingrained in our society. We still see women, especially those of breeding age, as more valuable than men. We romanticize young men who heroically sacrifice themselves in war, but recoil at the idea of young women suffering a similar fate.

Add emerging demographic issues with respect to declining fertility rates and the same incentives for accepting male mutilation are there. We still need people to have children for society to grow and function, but more women are having fewer children and more men are eschewing the pursuit of families entirely.

In terms of logistics, that increases the value of every woman who wishes to have a children and decreases the value of men who refuse to go along with that plan. In that system, a man losing his genitals or suffering a severe injury has to be funny in order for the situation to be tenable. By the same token, any harm coming to a woman has to remain extremely taboo.

Logistics aside, it’s still an unfair predicament that undermines the suffering and trauma that men endure. The fact that we have to be okay with their suffering while overvaluing the suffering of women is bound to fuel more egregious double standards. Movies like “The Package” certainty don’t help, but so long as this age-old gender disparity persists, men losing their penises will remain fodder for comedy rather than tragedy.

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The Hard Consequences Of Soft Censorship

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If you walked up to any random person on the street and asked them how they feel about censorship, chances are they would say they’re against it. Absent any context, most people equate censorship with tyranny and rightly so. Historically speaking, tyrannical societies are not beacons of free speech.

When you add context to that same question, though, then people are a bit more diverse in their response. They may say they’re against censorship, but they’ll also oppose hate speech and even support efforts to remove it from certain venues or platforms. It’s not the same as government-suppressed speech, but it’s still censorship on some levels.

A government’s effort to prohibit or punish speech is more daunting. That’s exactly why we have things like the First Amendment. Governments are big, powerful entities with armies and tax collectors. Their brand of censorship is a lot more concrete than others. That’s why such extensive legal protections are necessary.

When it comes less overt forms of censorship, though, the line isn’t as clear and neither are the legal protections. It can take the form of de-platforming a controversial speaker, which has happened on college campuses. It can also take the form of banning certain websites or certain subgroups within a website. These efforts aren’t usually called censorship. They’re usually referred to as preventing the spread of hate.

Personally, I don’t buy that excuse. As much as I abhor some of the things people say, both online and in person, any attempt to indirectly silence them is still censorship in my book. I call it “soft censorship” because it doesn’t involve government force. In many cases, it’s a grass roots effort to combat certain ideas that many find offensive.

That seems to be the most notable standard these days, the offensiveness of certain speech. That’s understandable, given how the world is more connected than it has ever been in human history. It’s now easier than ever for hateful, offensive speech to spread. Conversely, it’s also easy for the outrage to that speech to spread as well.

As a result, the forces behind that outrage are often the most powerful forces behind soft censorship. That outrage takes many forms too. It can be driven by political correctness, religious dogma, and general trolling. Censorship or suppression of speech is not always the stated goal, but it is often a desired result.

Given the ongoing changes to the media landscape, this brand of censorship seems to be getting more prominent than anything government effort. In fact, the reason I chose to bring this issue up is because of a few notable incidents that highlight the growing disconnect between free speech and movements to combat hate speech.

The first incident happened earlier this year and came from the gaming world, a domain that is no stranger to censorship and targeted outrage. The outrage in this case, though, had nothing to do with how beautiful women are depicted and everything to do with the policy of the popular Steam platform by Valve.

The particulars of the issue are simple. Valve was getting criticism for allowing too many violent, adult-oriented games on their platform, including those with overtly erotic themes. For a while, it looked like they would follow the same policy as Nintendo and Apple, who don’t allow anything that can’t be shown in a Disney movie.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly for some, Valve opted for a more libertarian policy. The standards are simple. As long as the content isn’t illegal or outright trolling, then it’s permitted. In the context of freedom of speech and creative freedom, this should count as a victory. However, that’s not how some saw it.

Almost immediately, Valve was heavily criticized for this freedom-centric policy and for all the wrong reasons. Some went so far as to call it irresponsible and cowardly, daring to permit games on their platform that might be overly graphic, crude, or sexy. Being a private company and not a government, that’s certainly their right.

Even so, it generated outrage. People didn’t see it as an act to promote free expression. They see it as a means of spreading hateful, offensive, sexist content and profiting from it. At at time when the video game industry sparks outrage every time it depicts a female character, Valve really took a chance by taking this approach and it’s sure to generate plenty more controversy, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Those same reasons showed up in another incident involving Reddit, a site on which I’m very active. Specifically, it involved a subreddit called KotakuInAction, which emerged in wake of the infamous GamerGate controversy in 2014. As a result, it has a reputation for being pretty brutal in its criticisms of regressive, far-left attitudes.

It’s oftent cited as one of the most “toxic” places on Reddit. There have been more than a few efforts to ban it. At one point, for reasons that I’d rather not get into, it was actually removed by its original creator. However, it was saved and put back up within less than a day, much to the relief of the nearly 100,000 subscribers.

Few will call that a victory for free speech. Those who criticize Valve and Reddit for permitting it don’t see their actions as suppressing speech. They see it as combating harassment and hate. Therein lies the problem with that effort, though. Harassment and hate are serious issues, but attacking only the speech is like attacking a single symptom of a much larger disease.

Even if Reddit had permanently banned KotakuInAction and Valve had opted to censor offensive games, it wouldn’t have made the ideas behind them disappear. Like putting a censor bar in front of female breasts, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re there and that they have an impact.

You could turn off the internet, burn every book, and shut down every newspaper tomorrow. That still wouldn’t stop people from thinking and feeling the things that lead them to want to say something offensive or create an offensive game. Speech is just a byproduct of ideas. Attacking the speech is not the same as confronting the source.

In fact, doing so can be counterproductive. There’s a real phenomenon called the Streisand Effect wherein efforts to hide, remove, or cenors something ends drawing more attention to it. The fact that Area 51 is a super-secret government facility that everyone knows about shows how powerful that effect can be.

In the context of combating hate, efforts to censor those behind it can end up elevating their message. When someone is censored, there’s an application of force implied. Whether it’s from a government or a moderator on a message board, censorship requires some level of force. Applying it to anyone is going to put them in a position to feel oppressed and that oppression tends to fuel hatred.

Harassment is different because when it comes to free speech, the line between discourse and threats is a bit less ambiguous. The Supreme Court has established a criteria for what constitutes “fighting words,” but it’s when things happen on a computer screen where it gets tricky.

Like hate, though, there’s a right and wrong way to deal with harassment. The right way to deal with a direct threat is to contact local law enforcement. The wrong way is to make it into a spectacle that requires that both the harasser and the platform they used to be condemned.

It’s an inescapable fact of life in any functioning society. The same platforms we use to interact will be used by others for disgusting, hateful, and offensive activities. We may feel disgust and revulsion for these things, but trying to silence both the people and the platform doesn’t make the sentiment behind it go away.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t wired that way.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Considering the impact of the the Streisand Effect, it’s utterly backwards.

I’m all for confronting hate and combating harassment, but not through censorship, hard or soft. It’s hard enough trying to change someone’s mind in an era where they can customize their news feeds. At the end of the day, we can only truly affect someone’s heart and mind by focusing on the person and not what’s on their computer screens.

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