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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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The Distressing (But Relevant) Questions Raised In Uncanny X-men #1

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The most relevant stories are often the ones that ask the most difficult questions. The nature of those questions vary among places, people, cultures, and whatever happens to be pissing off a significant chunk of the population. Regardless of the circumstances, those questions are important and sometimes they come from unexpected places.

I wasn’t expecting such questions when I picked up “Uncanny X-men #1,” the latest relaunch in the most iconic X-men brand of all time. I was just glad to see Uncanny X-men return to prominence after an extended absence dating back to 2016. This first issue was over-sized and priced at $7.99, which is a lot for a single comic. I still feel like I got my money’s worth.

In addition to telling a great story that brought many prominent X-men characters to the forefront, “Uncanny X-men #1” did something unique in terms of how it established a conflict. For once, it didn’t involve killer robots, preventing a genocide, mutant terrorist, or alien space gods. Instead, it asked one profound question.

What if there was a way to preventing people from becoming mutants in the first place?

That may sound like a question that has come up in other X-men stories, but that’s only partially correct. This isn’t about curing mutants, a story that Joss Whedon brilliantly told during his run on Astonishing X-men and that “ X-men: The Last Stand” botched horribly. This is about inoculating children the same way we do for polio.

Specifically, a lab develops a vaccine that prevents the X-gene from expressing. Technically, they would still be mutants in that they would still have this gene. It just wouldn’t express itself. It would be akin to turning off the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. It essentially treats mutation the same way we would treat any other genetic-based disease.

Naturally, the X-men and many other mutants don’t like this idea and not just because it’s akin to treating homosexuality as a mental illness. It reeks too much of genocide, something they’ve faced on more than one occasion. It would’ve been easy for “Uncanny X-men #1” to present it in that way, but that’s not how it plays out.

The all-star creative team of Ed Brisson, Kelly Thompson, Matthew Rosenberg, and Mahmud Asrar frame the issue in a very different way. Instead of some anti-mutant racist like Graydon Creed or William Stryker calling for mutant extermination, we get Senator Ashton Allen. He’s as generic a politician as can be in a superhero comic, but what he says and how he says is revealing.

Amidst a crowd of humans, mutants, and X-men, he talks about this mutant vaccine as a tool to alleviate suffering. He doesn’t rant about the dangers of evil mutants like Magneto or Apocalypse. He talks only about mutant children developing powers that could be dangerous to themselves or others. In that context, a vaccine might actually help them.

When you consider the mutant powers of characters like Rogue and Cyclops, who have mutant abilities that do real damage when uncontrolled, it seems entirely reasonable to make this vaccine available. Senator Allen never says anything about forcing it on kids or on mutants that already exist. He only ever emphasizes making it an option for concerned parents.

That’s distressing for the X-men because they don’t need to be omega-level psychics to imagine the implications. They can easily envision a concerned parent who doesn’t want their child to deal with the possibility that they may shoot lasers out of their eye one day. Any parent who cares for their child will want to mitigate the chances of them enduring such hardships.

In a world populated by mutant-hunting robots, parents already have plenty of incentive to use this vaccine. Given the damage that mutant-led conflicts often incur, the government has just as much incentive to make that vaccine available to everyone, free of charge and tax deductible. Governments less concerned with things like human rights could force it on children and that has some real-world parallels.

For mutants and the X-men, though, that means a permanent loss of their identity. Considering how mutants act as a metaphor for other oppressed minorities, this has implications for the real world, as well. I would even argue that the question will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.

To appreciate just how relevant it could be, you need only look up the heartbreaking stories of parents who have disowned their children because they’re gay or transgender. In tragic some cases, people are driven to suicide. Even for those who aren’t parents, anything that might avert this kind of hardship is worth considering.

Given the complex causes of homosexuality, as well as the many factors behind transsexuality, it’s unlikely that there could ever be a vaccine to prevent it. The same can be said for conditions like Dwarfism. It’s not just genes, hormones, or radioactive spider bites that shape an individual’s persona. It’s a complex confluence of many things.

However, we are getting very close to a point where it’s possible to design children at the genetic level. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, it might even be possible one day to cut out entire traits from the human genome. That could, in theory, eradicate both cystic fibrosis and Dwarfism. More than a few people have expressed concern about that possibility.

Homosexuality and transsexuality are a bit different since there is no one gene or hormone that causes it, but most contemporary research suggests that genetics do play at least some role. Using similar technology, it might be possible for parents in the future to minimize or eliminate the chances of their children being homosexual or transsexual.

I imagine many in the LGBT community feel the same way about those efforts that the X-men felt about Senator Allen’s efforts in “Uncanny X-men #1.” Even if it only extends to giving parents this option for children and provides strict protections for those already born with these traits, it still treats who and what they are as a disease.

It’s dehumanizing and demeaning. More than one X-men in “Uncanny X-men #1” makes that abundantly clear. They don’t see being a mutant as a disease any more than homosexuality, transsexuality, or dwarfism. The fact that there’s now a way to prevent this makes for an existential crisis with some pretty heavy implications for the real and fictional world.

In the world of Marvel comics, a world without mutants has its own set of issues, the least of which would be the loss of a top-selling comic series. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. What would we, as a society, do if we suddenly had the tools to prevent homosexuality, transsexuality, and dwarfism in children before they’re even born?

I’ll even ask a more controversial question that’s sure to draw plenty of ire. What if those same tools could be used to modify the skin color, facial features, and overall appearance of our children? We already understand how genetics affects our appearance to some extent. What happens when we’re able to determine that for someone before they’re ever born?

These are objectively distressing questions. I’m glad “Uncanny X-men #1” dared to ask them. I doubt they’ll get debated or resolved completely in the proceeding issues, mostly because such resolutions are impossible in superhero comics. It still presents the X-men with a unique issue to confront and one that we will likely have to confront in the real world.

As is often the case with difficult questions, the answers are likely to anger some and distress many. Most people genuinely and sincerely want what’s best for their children. In the world of Marvel Comics, that could mean preventing them from gaining the kind of superpowers that makes them targets for Sentinels. In the real world, that could mean removing an entire class of people from the gene pool.

In issues like this, there are no heroes or villains. There are just difficult choices that we must make before someone else makes them for us.

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How Ellie From “The Last Of Us” Does LGBT Characters Right

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In the current state of popular culture, one of the most emotionally-charged words is “diversity.” It gets thrown around like a nuclear hot potato. Anyone who holds it too long gets burned and anyone who doesn’t hold it long enough gets attacked. Whether it’s the handling of female characters or representation of minorities, diversity is one of those buzzwords that creates the wrong kind of buzz.

That’s not to say that it’s always mishandled. From a pure business standpoint, it makes sense for media companies to pursue diversity because the world is becoming an increasingly diverse place. New markets and consumer bases are emerging as people gain greater access to media, thanks largely to global connectivity. Any competent business would want to appeal to the most customers possible.

Economics aside, injecting diversity into a movie, TV, comic book, or video game is fraught with challenges and potential backlash. Movies have felt it. Comic books have felt it. Video games have especially felt it, thanks to scandals that seem to get more frustrating with each passing year.

The number of failed attempts to promote diversity is vast and tends to bring out the worst in many people. The successes, though, often fly under the radar and generate way too little attention. Other than the success ofBlack Panther” and the occasional Supergirl comic, the cases of diversity done right are few and far between.

That’s why I think it’s fitting that one of the best cases of diversity comes from the world of video games, an industry that finds itself in a new controversy every other week. It’s even more fitting that it comes courtesy of “The Last of Us,” a franchise I’ve praised before in how it portrays masculinity in a refreshingly positive way.

Beyond just being an excellent game with amazing characters, it also provides a case study in how diversity can be done effectively. It doesn’t have to be forced. It doesn’t have to be preachy. It doesn’t even have to have a larger agenda. It can just be a bonus on top of a well-made product.

The character in question this time is Ellie, the co-protagonist to Joel in the first game and the main protagonist in the upcoming sequel. Her story is every bit as rich and compelling as Joel’s. Her history, her personality, and even the way she complements the gameplay helps make her distinct. She’s a major reason why this game is so enjoyable and why it sold so well.

She achieved all this as both a female and an LGBT character. It sounds like one of those combinations that has to be forced, but that’s not the case with Ellie. In fact, anyone who plays the entire story of the first game wouldn’t even know about Ellie’s sexuality because it was only revealed through a DLC , or downloadable content.

Even within that content, though, Ellie’s sexual orientation was not a big part of the story it told. It effectively filled in a time gap within the main game while also exploring more of Ellie’s backstory, but at no point did it make her sexuality a bigger issue than it needed to be. You could’ve removed that detail entirely and the story would still work, but it wouldn’t be quite as memorable.

More recently, during a preview of “The Last of Us Part II” at E3 2018, Ellie’s status as a homosexual woman was reaffirmed. Again, it wasn’t critical to making the moment work. The fact she’s attracted to other women doesn’t take anything away from the emotional weight of the scene. It does help enhance it, though.

Therein lies the key. What makes Ellie a great character has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s not a defining aspect of her persona, nor should it be. It defines her no more than Joel’s heterosexuality defines him. It doesn’t have to be thrown in someone’s face as this huge, all-encompassing feature. It’s just a small part of a much greater whole that is Ellie.

There’s no effort to make her this LGBT icon, which has a tendency obscure a character when forced. Her status as LGBT isn’t belabored, either. She’s not important to the overall narrative in “The Last of Us” because she’s female and gay. She’s important because of factors independent of those traits.

That importance grows throughout the story, but not because of her gender or her sexuality. It’s what she does that helps establish her as an important character and a compelling one, at that. Her story complements Joel’s and the various other characters she encounters.

In the process, she also demonstrates a unique personality. She’s tough and stubborn, but she’s also impulsive and temperamental. Many of those qualities are entirely gender-neutral. Some stand out more because she’s a woman and that’s okay because a girl acting girly isn’t a big deal, which tends to get lost with other female characters.

It may seem so obvious, but the fact that diversity in media is such an issue shows just how difficult it is to pursue. Ellie succeeds because the diversity she represents is never primary to her character. It’s not even secondary, either. That’s not to say her gender and her sexuality are ignored, but it’s never elevated beyond a certain point.

Before any of those diversity-related issues come up, “The Last of Us” works to establish who Ellie is and why she’s important. That process of establishing a good, compelling character without her gender or sexuality being the focal point does a lot to get you to care about her story. It’s a process that can’t be rushed and the game does a masterful job in that respect.

The person Ellie is when you first encounter her early in the game is not the same person by the end. She’s someone who undergoes a lot of growth, encountering more than a few setbacks along the way. There are times she’s easy to root for. There are times when she comes off as an arrogant brat. Before you ever find out about her sexuality, you learn about her as a person.

By the time her sexuality finally comes up, Ellie is already so much more than the gender she’s attracted to. She’s a survivor, a fighter, and someone who has seen everyone she’s ever cared about die or leave her until Joel comes along. She also has a vital part to play in the ongoing apocalypse the world around her faces. All of this, once again, is not dependent on her gender or her sexuality.

I know I keep belaboring that, but it’s worth belaboring because that aspect of character development keeps getting glossed over. Other efforts at diverse characters often rush to the diversity without establishing why anyone should care about them. It’s why all-female remakes rarely resonate. It also leads to characters whose diversity is so blatant that it’s hard to take them seriously.

That’s not to say Ellie is a perfect example of diversity done right. She has her flaws, as does Joel. There are times when she’s too tough for her own good. She has a tendency to push peoples’ buttons for the wrong reasons. She also has questionable tastes in jokes. Even proponents of diversity can find flaws in her.

Despite those flaws, there are many lessons that characters like Ellie and games like “The Last of Us” can teach when it comes to doing diversity and LGBT representation right. The most important can be boiled down to four basic components:

  • Don’t try and force diversity just to fill a quota
  • Develop the character before developing the diversity
  • Don’t make their status as a woman or LGBT their most defining trait
  • Have the character complement their supporting cast, regardless of their diversity status

There are probably many more lessons that I’m not qualified to teach, but I think characters like Ellie do plenty by just being memorable and endearing. She’s a great character within a great story. That wouldn’t change if she were straight, but her being a lesbian does help her stand out, albeit for all the right reasons.

It’s also worth noting that Ellie’s story is still ongoing. “The Last of Us Part II” is set to come out in 2019 and the next part of her story promises to get pretty dark. Whether she maintains the complexity and appeal of her current character remains to be seen, but she has a strong foundation to build on, which is key for any character, regardless of their sexual preferences.

Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of animosity between both sides, there more diversity in future media because the world is a diverse place. It’s just a matter of going about it in a meaningful, compelling way. Ellie is an example of how an LGBT character can work and when done right, it works pretty damn well.

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A Better Way To Promote Diversity

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How do you encourage meaningful change in media, culture, and social attitudes? That’s a reasonable and relevant question to ask these days. It seems everyone is either trying to push for greater diversity or whining about the lack thereof. More often than not, however, those efforts aren’t mutually exclusive.

Even if nobody has a definitive answer to the question of how, that hasn’t stopped many from trying. There have been major diversity pushes in every form of media from video games to comics to movies to TV shows. Not all of them have been successful. In some cases, they backfired horribly and cost people money.

I don’t want to belabor the specifics of those failures, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that they also have the effect of angering and/or insulting the audience. For franchises that have a huge fan base, that can be pretty detrimental. Some franchises never recover.

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It certainly doesn’t help that there are those who push for diversity for all the wrong reasons. There’s a very vocal contingent of critics/professional trolls who go out of their way to bemoan the lack of diversity in a certain piece of media. Whether it’s a video game having too many people of the same race or a lack of strong female characters, these people will whine about it as loud as the internet will allow.

For the most part, I don’t think anyone should give much attention to such whining. We’ve all dealt with whiny children at some point in our lives. Most people learn, often the hard way, that arguing with them rarely works out. Most people just give up to stop the whining. I’ve pointed out before why this can lead to bigger problems down the line.

It quickly becomes a brutal cycle. The more attention you give to these whiny children, the more incentive they have to whine so they can get what they want. The same applies to these “critics” who keep whining about diversity. It’s not enough for them that “Black Panther” is doing so well with a diverse cast. Some will still whine that it had no LGBT characters.

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It’s inescapable. You simply cannot win against a whiny child. No matter how much you go out of your way for them, they’ll find another reason to whine and so long as they keep getting their way, they’ll keep doing it. In the long run, though, that’s still a terrible way to promote diversity.

Ideally, producers of media will pursue diversity because they want to appeal to a broader audience. They want to make money and money doesn’t care about race, religion, or genital configuration. However, when critics/trolls rely on whining to get their way, then those efforts become less about diversity and more about stopping the whining.

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I believe there is a better way to promote diversity and it does not involve any whining. It doesn’t require some radical rethinking of how we go about producing, consume, or discussing media. It doesn’t even require some major protest, a new law, or diversity quotas. It’s just a simple change in approach that anyone can do for free and without that much effort.

That change can be summed up in two words: positive reinforcement. If you’ve taken a basic psychology class at any point in your education, you already know what this means. Even if you haven’t taken any classes and just deal with a lot of annoying people/children/whiners, you probably know the idea.

Rather than complaining about what is so bad about something, positive reinforcements involve focusing on the good. Rather than whine about what isn’t there, you celebrate what is there. Most importantly, though, you turn that outrage once reserved for those bad things into apathy. Most forms of media can survive outrage. They cannot survive apathy.

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To illustrate this approach, consider the following scenario that tends to play out whenever someone criticizes a movie, TV show, video game, etc. for a lack of diversity.

“Just look at this terrible affront to women, minorities, and LGBTQ people! It’s so racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic! It sends a terrible message and appeals to an audience that wants to cling to their regressive attitudes. It’s perpetuating a destructive, unhealthy mindset that directly impacts our culture. This affront should be censored, changed, or condemned endlessly until the world changes!”

Chances are, you’ve heard something like this over the past few years. Sometimes it involves a female character that doesn’t check the right boxes. Sometimes it involves a story that tries to check too many boxes. In any case, the whiners I mentioned earlier will find a reason to get upset about it. Moreover, they’ll demand some sort of change, coupled with condemnation over anyone who disagrees.

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That’s not going to promote diversity. If anything, that’s going to give people one too many reasons to resent pushes for diversity. Some media companies are already learning that the hard way, with Marvel being the most recent example. Ideally, you want someone to promote diversity because they want to and not because they’re afraid of a backlash.

With that in mind, here’s a second scenario that shows how positive reinforcement can further that effort.

“That thing some claim is racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic? I don’t really care for that. Let me tell you about this other thing that I just think is amazing! I love it. It’s so much fun and it sends such a good message to men, women, and minorities of all kinds. I want more of this. I’m willing to pay for more of this. Please make more of this!”

It may come off as some peppy kid who is way too excited about something. Then again, wouldn’t you rather be around that kid instead of the one that whines to get what they want? When someone is happy and excited about something, it’s kind of infectious. It makes us want to share in that feeling.

Throw money into the mix and suddenly, the same producers that make all the media that regressive types whine about actually have a good incentive to promote diversity beyond just placating whiners. Instead of just avoiding controversy, they actually want to do diversity and do it right.

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The key is focusing on instances where it is done right. They are there. There have been plenty of examples of the media actually getting diversity right. They just don’t make the news because outrage is louder and garners more attention. Even so, excitement and praise can be just as loud.

Instead of complaining about Rey being a Mary Sue in “Star Wars,” focus on how great Princess Leia was in the first trilogy or how great Ahsoka Tano is in “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”

Instead of complaining about Lara Croft being too sexy, focus on how great Samus Aran is in the Metriod games.

Instead of complaining about the lack of diversity on shows like “Seinfeld,” focus on how great the minority characters are in shows like “Fresh Off The Boat” or “House.”

It may not sound as vocal or satisfying as venting outrage about a flaw, but it sends the kind of message that others are more likely to want to get behind. Whereas positive feelings can have many benefits to yourself and those around you, venting outrage can be very unhealthy.

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In the long run, getting others to want to promote diversity is the best way to further it. Whining about it isn’t going to accomplish that. It’s just going to make others want to stop the whining. That may work for kids, but not functioning adults.

Movie producers, TV executives, comic book writers, and video game programmers alike are all still human at the end of the day. Human beings respond positively to positive feelings. Channel those feelings into promoting diversity and you won’t just get more of it. You’ll get people who are actually excited about producing it.

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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. And The TRUE Meaning Of Equality

Usually on a holiday, be it a major one that kids celebrate because it means no school or a more contrived one meant to sell greeting cards, I go out of my way to acknowledge it on this blog. I even try to channel the spirit of the holiday, if only to make the day feel like more than just something people mark on a calendar.

With today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, though, I feel compelled to do more than just acknowledge it or the spirit behind it. In fact, I feel as though the spirit of this holiday is more critical now in 2018 than it has been in year’s past. When I look at the world today and all the ongoing conflicts unfolding before my eyes, I believe that the message and spirit of Dr. King is more relevant than ever.

Most people know who Martin Luther King Jr. is and why he’s such a prominent figure in modern history. He has a holiday named after him for a very good reason. He was both a leader and an icon of a very volatile time in American history. He was also a strong man of faith, one who actually took the non-violent teachings of Jesus Christ to heart. That’s an increasingly radical concept these days.

What Dr. King accomplished was remarkable, especially in the face of so much heated opposition. However, it’s how he accomplished it that really sets him apart and makes him worthy of celebrating. Like I said before, he believed in non-violence and he took them very seriously.

According to the King Center, Martin Luther King Jr. had a very specific way of utilizing non-violence to achieve the goals he sought. In his book, “Stride Towards Freedom,” he organized them into six principles.

  • Principle #1: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  • Principle #2: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  • Principle #3: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
  • Principle #4: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  • Principle #5: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
  • Principle #6: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

Take a moment, if you can, to appreciate the sheer heart and idealism espoused in these principles. Remember, Dr. King fought against some of the most extreme racism anyone can imagine. Take the most offensive, vile messages you’ve seen on social media or 4chan. Then, create a society around them and give it political power. That’s what Dr. King was up against.

However, he didn’t seek to defeat that racism through the kind of outrage, protests, and meme wars that seem to dominate the overall rhetoric today. He took these principles of non-violence and employed them. He did this, despite often being threatened with violence.

He still stuck to those principles, though. He believed that his message would transcend the violence. The fact that he now has a holiday named after him and is one of the most celebrated figures in modern history proves that his beliefs were vindicated.

What stood out with these principles and how Dr. King practiced them literally showed the power of these beliefs. Rather than pick fights with racists, he sought understanding. Rather than voice outrage, he chose to voice love. This is readily apparent in his famous “I have a dream” speech that still resonates to this day. Even in 2018, it still gives people chills for all the right reasons.

Read or listen to that speech and then contrast that with how people today are trying to fight racism, sexism, and bigotry. Think about the misguided movements from both sides of the political spectrum that operated under very different principles. Then, look at the results or lack thereof.

This is where the power of Dr. King’s principles really shows. It also reveals just how much we’ve forgotten or negated what it means to seek equality or combat bigotry. It’s articulated in the second and the fifth principle of non-violence. He sought understanding and love over retribution and hate.

This matters today because society today is more and more driven by a toxic mix of outrage culture and attention-driven economics. We’re seeing this in increasingly petty arguments within feminism, racial politics, and political groups. These days, it’s become less about actual progress and more about winning debates.

As a result, our entire understanding of justice and equality has become twisted. It’s no longer a matter of pursuing the equal treatment under the law that Martin Luther King Jr. fought and eventually died for. It’s about fighting and hating the real and perceived source of that inequality.

We see it among both feminists and men’s rights activists who seek to demonize one another rather than promote gender equality.

We see it among racial and ethnic groups who seek to elevate themselves at the direct cost of another.

We see it among religious groups, sometimes within the same religion, who seek to dominate rather than cooperate.

These are antithetical to the message that Dr. King espoused. In his preaching and protests, he didn’t demand that one group be elevated over the other. He didn’t demand that oppressors suffer the same indignity as the oppressed to balance the scales of justice. He understood, probably better than anyone alive today, that fighting injustice with injustice still leaves us with the same amount of injustice.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It’s not always the kind of obvious legal injustice that was so prevalent in Dr. King’s time. Today, injustice takes many forms. There are those who seek to actively punish those for daring to express thoughts that counter a popular movement that claims to seek justice. There are those who seek to shame others for not being affiliated with a movement or not going far enough.

We’re getting into dangerous levels of tribalism in that it’s becoming less about pursuing justice and more about being part of a shared agenda. Thanks to the internet, that’s becoming distressingly easy and the broader ideals of Dr. King’s principles seem to get lost under the weight of all the outrage.

In his tireless efforts, Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality of treatment. He didn’t seek to elevate one group over the other, exchanging one form of oppression for another. He didn’t seek to destroy his opponents. He sought to make them friends and allies. He fought their hatred with love and their ignorance with wisdom. It wasn’t about winning a debate. It was about actually pursuing the spirit of equality.

That, more than anything, is the message we should heed in 2018. Pursuing equality doesn’t mean subduing opponents. It means standing with them on the same level, embracing what us similar and unique. We can never share the same outcomes in life, but we can share in the struggles.

In the end, pursuing equality requires a great deal of humility, as well as a genuine faith that people will embrace justice if you give them a chance. We’re giving ourselves fewer and fewer chances these days. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and everything he stood for, we would all be wise to give ourselves those changes moving forward.

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What “The Gifted” Reveals (And Warns Us) About Ourselves

Every now and then, a TV show comes along at just the right time. Like bikinis in the summer, hot chocolate in the winter, or beer at a football game, it just makes the right connections for all the right reasons.

You could argue that shows like “Married With Children” or “South Park” were shows that just happened to come along at a time when audiences were eager for something different, but didn’t know it. Some, especially “Married With Children,” couldn’t be made today because of changing standards. The fat jokes alone would’ve triggered endless whining on social media that would’ve gone on for years.

That brings me to “The Gifted,” Fox’s latest effort to squeeze every cent of profit from the X-men franchise. Yes, this is going to be another one of those posts. As I’ve done before, I’m going to tie real-world issues to one of my favorite superheroes. Unlike other posts, though, those ties go beyond getting romance tips from Deadpool.

While I’m usually skeptical about efforts to shamelessly exploit the glut of superhero shows on TV, I gladly make an exception for “The Gifted” and for a good reason. Compared to superhero melodrama on the CW or the gritty violence of the superheroes on Netflix, it’s a very different kind of show with a very different kind of struggle. Unlike aliens, blind lawyers, and secret armies of ninjas, this struggle is more relevant.

That’s because “The Gifted” doesn’t focus on heroes. Sure, it takes place in the same world as the X-men, but they aren’t the focus. Instead, the show builds its story around the Von Strucker family. They don’t live in a mansion. They don’t have their own personal hypersonic jet. They don’t even have their own personal high-tech training room.

The Von Struckers, unlike their comic counterparts, are an ordinary middle class family. They aren’t concerned with superheroes, super-villains, and insane love triangles between heroes. They’re concerned with work, school, taxes, and taking out the garbage. In a sense, they are a reflection of real people in a world with unreal challenges.

That’s a perspective that rarely manifests in the X-men movies. In fact, other than a memorable scene in “X2: X-men United,” the impact that mutants have on ordinary people is rarely touched on. Sure, they’ll show humans running in terror from a Sentinel or a pissed-off Magneto. That doesn’t give us much insight into the lives these people live.

The Gifted” builds an entire narrative around a family that lives in this world and during exceedingly tense times, no less. This is not a world where seeing the X-men take down a Sentinel is the sort of thing that happens every other Tuesday. This is a world where both the X-men and the Brotherhood have disappeared in an event that has only been referred to as “The July 15th Incident.”

That incident, much like 9/11 or a major assassination, created a dramatic/traumatic shift in society. Suddenly, mutants aren’t just another minority issue. They’re an existential threat, like nuclear weapons or mass pandemics. Mutants aren’t just a distant threat anymore. They’re a real threat.

From the perspective of the Von Struckers, at least in the first episode, the danger of mutants is like the threat of terrorism. They know it’s there. They accept the systems and precautions that society has put in place to deal with it. They’ve learned not to think much of it. They’re too busy just being an ordinary family in a world that happens to have individuals who have the mutant ability to turn into ice cream.

In a sense, we’ve done the same thing in the real world. We accept that we live in a world where the NSA reads all our emails, the CIA tries to assassinate world leaders, and gross injustices happen every day. We know, to some extent, that it’s manifesting all around us. We just shut it out and try to live our lives.

What happens, though, when that injustice hits you or someone you love? That’s what happens to the Von Struckers in the very first episode of “The Gifted.” Their blissfully oblivious lives are shattered when Reed and Kate Strucker find out their children are both mutants. Not only that, one of them ends up trashing the school gymnasium when his powers first manifest.

Their happy, middle class lives aren’t just disrupted. They’re shattered, spit on, and covered in fresh whale shit. To make matters worse, Reed Strucker, played by Stephen Moyer, was a prosecutor who made his living sending mutants to prison. Short of beating mutant children with a baseball bat for a living, he couldn’t have had a worse job.

The mutants he sent to prison weren’t always guilty of crimes. Sometimes, it was just a matter of being in the wrong place when their biology decided to act up. It would be like a teenage boy being arrested for an awkward boner, something we can’t always control. Granted, mutant powers tend to be more destructive, but they can be just as unpredictable.

It’s this revelation, as well as the events that unfold in the episodes that follow, that really highlight the impact that “The Gifted” leaves. It’s an impact more relevant than most X-men stories, including the ones that involve jealous ex-lovers. In a sense, it’s one that many minorities already understand all too well.

From the beginning of the show, there’s never a sense that Reed Strucker believed that he was hurting anyone. He never came off as the kind of guy who hates mutants and longs for the days where men like him can throw mutants into internment camps. He’s just doing his job, which he believes is making the public safer.

It’s really no different from those who genuinely believe that homosexuality is inherently harmful or that gun control will only lead to more violence. Most of the people who believe these things, the Pat Robertsons and Richard Spencers of the world notwithstanding, are decent people who want to live in a world where they’re families are safe.

Then, something traumatic comes along that shatters this worldview. They find out they have a gay son or they find themselves in the crossfire of a mass shooting. Suddenly, they can’t ignore these injustices anymore. They can’t go about their happy lives as though the system isn’t victimizing someone. It’s one of those rare situations where no amount of excuse banking can change the truth.

In a sense, the Von Strucker family are reflections of the families in the real world that find themselves on the wrong end of injustice. Whether it’s a Muslim family victimized by racial profiling or being on the wrong side of a sexual harassment claim, it’s not possible to avoid or ignore it anymore. These injustices are hurting you and the people you love. It’s soul-shattering, but that’s what makes “The Gifted” so compelling.

In the fourth episode, this message really hits hard. Reed finds himself in a jail cell right next to Polaris, a mutant who he prosecuted in the first episode, who also happens to be Magneto’s daughter. In these bleak conditions, she basically lays out all the hard truths that he and others like him avoid.

Yes, there was an incident where a group of mutants, which you could substitute for any minority, did something terrible. That was a terrible incident, but efforts to prevent other incidents like that are just hurting real people who don’t want to be superheroes fighting killer robots. Polaris is just one of them. Reed’s children are two more.

That harsh message is one that carries over in the real world, often in tragic ways. Back in 2007, a documentary called “For The Bible Tells Me So” highlighted deeply religious families who had been vehemently anti-gay, only to have one of their children turn out to be gay. Sometimes, it changed their perspective. In some instances, though, it ended tragically.

It’s a harsh, but necessary truth. We can’t control our circumstances. Much like Reed Strucker, we sometimes find ourselves in the worst situations at the worst possible times. The world is chaotic, full of strange people who do terrible things. The fact we can’t control or prevent those things is agonizing, at times. We, as a society, will do as much as we can to mitigate that danger.

In the process, though, we’ll try to fight injustice with more injustice. We’ll obsess less over what is real and more about what is potentially real. It leads us to do extreme things like throw innocent people into internment camps or create killer robots to protect people.

The Gifted” reveals the cost of those measures. It goes beyond the eccentricities surrounding superheroes and focus on the real impact that real minorities feel. Most who are lucky enough to not be part of that group remain content to ignore it. Then, when it finally affects them, they realize just how unjust it is.

At a time when injustices are harder to hide and minorities are a growing part of society, these are important messages. The X-men have been exploring these themes for years, often with colorful adventures involving cosmic birds. “The Gifted” goes even deeper and during these troubled times, these are messages worth heeding.

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On Transgender Soldiers, The Military Ban, And Being A Dick

In general, I try not to comment on major news stories until after the media shit storm has died down somewhat. In my experience, very little meaningful debate comes storms of swirling shit, consisting primarily of hyperbole-heavy headlines and glorified shouting matches on cable news. Those are all things that most sane people can do without.

In this case, though, I think it’s better that I not wait because it’s likely to be an issue for a while. It also involves an issue that I’ve been looking to talk about for a while now, albeit under better circumstances. Since this blog talks a lot about sex and ongoing issues concerning human sexuality, it makes sense for me to touch on relevant social issues of the sexy kind. At the moment, few issues are more relevant than transgender rights.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that I don’t know a whole lot about finer details of transgender issues. I know it’s a thing. I have only a basic understanding of the issues, concepts, and science behind transgender individuals so I apologize ahead of time if anything I write sounds ignorant or under-informed.

I do know, however, that the transgender community has had a growing target on their backs lately. The uptight, repressed, missionary position loving crowd lost the battle against same-sex marriage. They know they can’t be a dick to gay people anymore and profit from it like they used to. As such, they turn their attention to the next vulnerable minority that makes the “Father Knows Best” crowd cringe.

It started with a surge in so-called “bathroom bills,” which are much less sexier than they sound. Apparently, people were horrified that other people who don’t look like the gender they were born as were going into public restrooms to sexually abuse little girls.

Sure, it sounds extreme, but it’s not the first time society has tried to protect women from a supposedly-deviant minority. Also, never mind the fact that approximately 75 percent of child abuse is perpetrated by someone the kid already knows. The transgender community was still singled out, if only because they’re low-hanging fruit in a world where bashing gays is politically inconvenient.

Then, last week the transgender community took another blow and this time, it involved something much bigger than not being able to take a shit in a Walmart restroom. The White House announced that transgender individuals would no longer be welcome in the United States Military.

Historically speaking, singling out minorities in the military has not turned out well for those hoping to live in the world of George Wallace. That’s not to say that transgender issues are the same as those involving race, religion, or who you’re sexually attracted to. However, discrimination is still discrimination, no matter the excuse.

By all accounts, having transgender individuals in the military had not been causing any problems. Even some high-ranking officers within the military were surprised by the announcement. If anything, it comes off as a decision that simply followed the anti-transgender momentum that started with the bathroom bills.

There may very well be other dynamics involved, but in terms of the big picture, the style is the same. These are sexual minorities, the kind that don’t vote conservative or fit the profile of extras in a 1950s sitcom. These individuals are considered “weird” or “deviant” to those who prefer straight monogamous marriages with a few mistresses on the side, at most.

These same individuals used to say the same thing about homosexuals and often still do, although not in a way that carries any political weight. There’s this aura of deviance and debauchery associated with sexual minorities. They’re just so different from what we’re used to that the whole “ick factor” comes into play. It’s not like nature promotes variations and diversity within a species or something, right?

That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way, which I hope highlights the primary flaw in the debate surrounding transgender issues. It’s a flaw that most people, myself included, fail to recognize whenever they try to discuss these issues. It all comes down to one simple truth. By and large, we have a very poor understanding of human sexuality in general.

Sure, we understand that a penis goes into a vagina. We even understand that most living things are hardwired to dedicate much of their existence to pursuing that melding of body parts. It’s that exact biological wiring that I try to appeal to with my sexy novels.

However, the biggest problem with that biological wiring is that it’s biological. Biology, and nature in general, tends to be pretty chaotic and not just in sexual matters. Just look up images of a platypus, an echidna, and a naked mole rat to see what I mean. Trust me, though, the naked mole rat isn’t as sexy as it sounds.

Biology is so complex, dealing with so many moving parts in terms of chemical reactions, that it’s bound to cause some crazy manifestations. This is, however, kind of necessary because for all biological life to adapt, reproduce, and survive, it needs variation. Since the world around life is every bit as chaotic, it’s only logical that biology would try to match that chaos so it can keep up.

This certainly plays out in human sexuality. The sheer breadth of genre porn is proof enough of that. As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I know better than most that our sexual proclivities are as diverse as they are kinky. It may horrify priests, mullahs, and conservatives, but I think it’s a beautiful thing.

In that context, I think it perfectly appropriate to put transgender individuals on the same spectrum as homosexuality. It’s a variation of the kinky chaos that is human sexuality. As such, and maybe this is just the erotica/romance writer in me, I believe it’s not something that warrants condemnation or discrimination.

I understand that’s not a universally-held opinion. There are some who still believe that transgenderism is a manifestation of mental illness. Since the science on human sexuality is often in flux, so much so that the female orgasm was once considered part of a medical disorder, there’s no telling how our understanding of sexuality will change in the future.

Based on our current understanding, though, being transgender does not fit the criteria of mental illness. Like homosexuality, shifting gender does occur in nature to some extent. There are multiple species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and insects that undergo a shift in gender under certain conditions. Since humans are part of the same taxonomic tree, it makes sense that something similar would manifest in humans.

The fact that it’s rarer than most variations, from homosexuality to being left handed, is part of what creates that “ick factor” I mentioned earlier. When something is rare, different, and poorly understood, it’s bound to cause some consternation among the population. As a famous comic book villain and Walter White precursor once said, “Mankind always fears what it doesn’t understand.”

This leads me to the ultimate crux of the transgender debate that will likely guide the debate moving forward. Unlike the science of sexuality, this is much simpler in that it basically comes down to being a dick.

Sure, the idea that someone is transgender may make certain people uncomfortable, but being a dick to a minority is an idea that most reasonable people cannot and will not get behind. It may be socially acceptable in the short term, as we’ve seen with race and homosexuality. In the long term, however, being a dick to anyone rarely works out, unless your Kanye West.

I don’t deny that this military ban is a setback for transgender individuals and their families. I certainly don’t support it. If someone wants to serve their country, regardless of what gender they are or believe themselves to be, then there’s no legitimate reason to prohibit them from doing so.

As we saw with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it may take a while for the transgender crowd to recover from this. I believe, though, that the momentum of history is in their favor. It’s one thing to be a dick to some random transgender person on the street, but to be a dick to an aspiring soldier is something that will never pan out in the long run.

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