Tag Archives: social justice warriors

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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Filed under censorship, Current Events, human nature, media issues, political correctness

How The Idea Of “Toxic Fandom” Is Fundamentally Flawed

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The internet is a vast, wonderful place full of mesmerizing gifs, amazing stories, and the collective knowledge of our entire species. I would argue that the internet is one of humanity’s most important tools since the invention of fire. I strongly believe that is has done more good any other tool we’ve created.

I have a feeling that this rosy view of the internet is a minority opinion. These days, all the good the internet does tends to get lost in the stories that highlight its many dangers. I don’t deny that there are dangers there. The internet does have some dark places where hate, harassment, and outright depravity are on full display.

More and more, it seems, the internet is becoming an enabler of a new manifestation of popular culture. It’s called “toxic fandom” and it relies on the greatest strengths of the internet to bring out the absolute worst in people. It didn’t start with the heated fan reaction of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but it certainly made it relevant.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. There are assholes on the internet. There are also assholes in real life. The internet doesn’t make them that way. It just gives them a platform to be an asshole on a larger scale. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of the internet, but one that tends to obscure a larger narrative.

That’s because, much like inane terms such as “toxic masculinity,” the idea of toxic fandom relies on a series of assumptions that only ever have a sliver of truth behind them. It builds around this idea of there’s this grand, over-arching effort by immature, angry young men who secretly wish they could sexually harass women with impunity. It’s not quite on the level of an Alex Jones type conspiracy, but it’s close.

There have always been overly-passionate fans. It existed long before the internet and would still exist if the internet disappeared tomorrow. “Toxic fandom,” and there’s a reason I’m putting it in quotes, is something very different.

This doesn’t involve obsession with a particular celebrity. It involves a particular type of media like a movie, a TV show, or a video game. In some respects, this sort of fandom is a byproduct of overwhelming success. When something like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” comes along, it resonates with an audience on a profound level. That sort of impact can last a lifetime.

I can attest to the power of that impact through my love of comic books. I’ve even cited a few that I find deeply moving, both in good ways and in not-so-good ways. Most everybody has had an experience like that at some point in their life, whether it’s their reaction to seeing “Titanic” for the first time or the feeling they get after they binge-watch “Breaking Bad.”

The toxic part usually comes when the media they’ve come to love manifests in a way that’s not just disappointing. It undermines those powerful feelings they’ve come to associate with that media. The results can be very distressing and until recently, the only way to express that distress was to sulk quietly in a darkened room.

Then, the internet comes along and suddenly, fans have a way to voice their feelings, for better and for worse. They can even connect with fans who feel like they do so that they don’t feel alone. The human tendency to form groups is one of the most fundamental acts anyone can do as a member of a highly social species.

Now, there’s nothing inherently “toxic” about that behavior. It has only made the news because the passions/vitriol of fans is more visible, thanks to the internet. Just browse any comments section of any movie or show on IMDB. Chances are you’ll find a few people who claim that this thing they once loved has been ruined and will use every possible medium to voice their displeasure.

This is where the “toxic” aspects of fandom start to have real-world consequences. Most recently, Kelly Marie Tran became the face of those victimized by toxic fandoms. After her portrayal of Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she became the most polarizing figure in the history of Star Wars since Jar Jar Binks.

The story surrounding Ms. Tran’s harassment, which was objectively horrible, became vindication for those who believed that the Star Wars fanbase had become a mess of angry, hate-filled fanboys. They didn’t like that something they loved was changing and becoming more diverse. As such, their criticisms don’t matter. They may as well be wounded storm troopers in a room full of angry wookies.

The problem with this assumption is the same problem we get when someone writes off facts as fake news or diversity efforts as a neo-Marxist conspiracy. It’s a simple, convenient excuse to ignore possible flaws and justify personal assumptions. It also conflates the inescapable truth that assholes exist in the world and there’s nothing we can do about it.

None of this is to imply that harassment is justified or that fans can be exceedingly unreasonable. By the same token, this doesn’t imply that studios don’t deserve criticism when they attempt to revamp a beloved franchise in a way that does not keep with the spirit of the original. It’s only when criticism gets lost in the outrage that the “toxic” behaviors become more prominent.

It’s within that outrage, though, where the true flaws in the “toxic fanbase” narrative really break down. To a large extent, the “toxicity” that many complain about aren’t a product of unhealthy attitudes. They’re a manifestation of an inherent flaw in the relationship between fans and those who produce the iconic media they love.

To illustrate that flaw, think back to a recent controversy involving a “toxic fanbase.” Before the reaction “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” became the poster child for this issue, the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake was the most prominent example. It earned a lot of hatred for reasons that I’d rather not scrutinize.

With that hatred in mind, imagine a long-time Ghostbusters fan seeking to express their dismay. They decide to write a kind, detailed, and thoughtful letter to the studio, the director, and anyone else involved detailing their dismay and their criticisms. They may even cite specific examples on what they felt was wrong with the movie.

Chances are this sort of thoughtful, well-worded message would get deleted, ignored, or just plain lost in the digital landscape. Even if the head of Sony studios read it and agreed with every point made, they wouldn’t respond. They wouldn’t do anything ot change it. That would just be too inconvenient and it would look bad publicly.

From the perspective of the fan writing the letter, though, it sends the message that their sentiment doesn’t matter. Their passion for the media doesn’t matter. They might as well not even exist in the eyes of the producers. The only way for them to even acknowledge their existance is to be louder, angrier, and even a little meaner. Even if the reponse is negative, it at least acknowledges their existence.

It’s not the same as trolling. Trolls just want upset people for the fun of it. Fans voicing their displeasure are more sincere in the sense that they believe they’re protecting something they love. Whether or not that’s misguided is debatable. Some, namely those who harass and make threats, are more misguided than others. However, they only ever make up a very small percentage of fans.

In the end, that’s the most important perspective to have when it comes to fandom. Those who are the loudest tend to be the most obnoxious, but they’re loud because they feel like they have to be. The internet just gives them a way to be heard, which is something most fans haven’t had before.

That’s still not an excuse for being an asshole, but it’s also not an excuse for using those same assholes to call an entire fanbase toxic. It overlooks and undermines the genuine and sincere love people have of these cultural icons. As as a result, when someone feels like their love is being ignored, that’s when toxic hate often finds a way to fill that void.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, human nature, media issues, movies, political correctness, Star Wars

Why I Don’t Use The Term “Social Justice Warrior” And Ideas For A Better Label

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Every now and then, I get comments and criticisms about my writing style. Some are constructive. Some are just angry rants that I’m perfectly content to ignore. There is one criticism, though, that I feel is worth addressing.

Specifically, it involves some specific terms I avoid using. Most people with an internet connection or access to cable news have probably heard the term “social justice warrior” at least once. It’s rarely in a positive light. It’s often used as an insult or a signal that you’re about to say something that’s going to evoke a lot of angry comments on social media.

I’ve been tempted to use it in the past. I’ve discussed many topics involving feminism, men’s issues, and social inequality that often get people throwing that term around as though it were a demonic chant. There’s a reason I’ve avoided it, though, and I hope to demonstrate that it’s a good reason.

First off, I want to make clear that I despise the term “social justice warrior” almost as much as I despise “toxic masculinity,” a phrase I believe cannot fade from our language fast enough. I see this label as one of the worst manifestations of the English language since the hippie era and at least they could blame psychedelic drugs.

I also believe that its continued usage will do more to breed hatred, outrage, and division at a time when we’re already more divided than ever. It derails a conversation and detracts from discussions about serious issue involving society, justice, and gender. This term is literally holding back progress, which is ironic given the nature of its definition.

The actual definition of a social justice warrior, or SJW as it’s colloquially used, is somewhat vague. It’s a modern-day catch-all term for a particular brand of politics and social attitudes. According to Wikipedia, the definition is as follows:

A pejorative term for an individual who promotes socially progressive views, including feminism, civil rights, and multiculturalism, as well as identity politics. The accusation that somebody is an SJW carries implications that they are pursuing personal validation rather than any deep-seated conviction, and engaging in disingenuous arguments.

I think that definition covers most of the most common ways the term is used, but I think it underscores how much vitriol it inspires. Spend any amount of time on social media and you’ll find some of the most hateful, demeaning, and divisive rhetoric you can imagine.

However, it’s not just the extreme rhetoric this term inspires that discourages me from using it. It’s not even the tendency for a conversation to devolve rapidly as soon as the words “social justice warrior” show up in a sentence. What I find most objectionable about this term is how fundamentally dishonest it is.

To illustrate how, look at the anti-abortion movement, another extremely divisive issue that tends to evoke all the wrong emotions. There are some pretty passionate opponents to abortion, but they don’t call themselves anti-abortion. They call themselves “pro-life.” It’s a disingenuous term, but from a marketing standpoint, it’s brilliant.

That’s because, if you go by the literal meaning of the words, it means you’re for life in general. It doesn’t directly imply anything about abortion. By calling themselves “pro-life,” they skew the meaning so that they can claim they’re on the side of all things alive and good.

Again, it’s a smart ploy, but it’s also dishonest and George Carlin did a brilliant job of explaining why. Those who use the “social justice” label use a similar tactic. They use words that denote inherently positive concepts like society and justice. However, I would argue that this ploy is even more dishonest than those hiding behind the “pro-life” table.

Most reasonable people are for justice. They’re also for a functional society in which people of any race, gender, religion, or ethnic background can live in peace and enjoy the same protections under the law. On paper, we have that. In practice, there’s room for improvement.

However, whenever I listen to someone who adheres to the Wikipedia definition of “social justice warrior,” I never get the impression that their ideas of justice are genuine. They tend to reflect a personal, selfish brand of justice that is more concerned with how the world makes them feel and less with how it really works.

A “social justice warrior” will look at issues like female depictions in video games, cultural appropriation in media, and proper pronoun usage and not see the full picture. In fact, they’ll go out of their way to ignore that picture and focus only on the parts that sends their emotions into overdrive.

It’s not enough to just criticize these injustices. A “social justice warrior” has to treat them like some grand conspiracy by wannabe fascists who bathe in the tears of orphans and wish they could still own slaves. It becomes a potent blend of holier-than-thou grandstanding and virtue signaling. To say that brings out the worst in some people would be an understatement.

Talk to most people outside a 4chan board and chances are, they’ll be in favor of a just society whether they’re liberal, conservative, progressive, feminist, or whatever other political affiliation they may have. The fact that “social justice” now has more to do with misguided outrage and little to do with actual justice is downright tragic.

The term gets thrown around so often that I’ve made a conscious decision to just avoid using it in my writing. After this article, I intend to use different words that I feel are more reflective of the outrageous attitudes that “social justice warrior” evokes.

I’m not doing that because using words gives them power and I don’t want to give “social justice warrior” more power than it already has. While I doubt that’ll reduce the vitriol it currently carries, I still prefer terminology that’s more reflective of these damaging attitudes.

In the name of offering some potential solutions to this issue, I want to put forth a new approach to dealing with the “social justice warrior” phenomenon. I believe that it reflects an ideology that’s worth confronting. It espouses attitudes that promote censorship, infantilize groups of people, and elevates one person’s feelings over another for all the wrong reasons.

These are people and attitudes that will continue to make noise and push bad ideas on a society that already has too many circling around. For that reason, I believe that warrants creating some new labels for them, one that I think is more descriptive of what they truly area. Here are just a few.

Professional Whiner

Regressive Whiner

Weakly Whiner

Sad Whiner

I think the theme here is pretty obvious. Most of the time, “social justice warriors” don’t really protest. They whine. They whine in a way that’s worse than any child. They don’t try to solve a problem. They don’t try to learn the facts and figure out a better process for doing something. They just whine.

That’s not just pathetic. That makes whole “warrior” part of their label hypocritical. Warriors are supposed to fight and not whine. When reality doesn’t cater to your feelings, whining never changes that. A “social justice warrior” may even understand that, but they also understand that without validation of some sort, their outrage is empty.

That, I believe, is the key to confronting the misguided attitudes of the “social justice warrior” phenomenon. Attitudes that have little to do with actual justice or a healthy society need to be called out for what they are. I say that as someone who does have attitudes that some may consider progressive, but I understand that whining about them won’t do much to further those ideals.

At the end of the day, if all “social justice warriors” have to go on is whining, then the harsh reality of the world will do plenty to undercut their attitudes in the long run. Calling them what they truly are will just help remind them a little sooner.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, philosophy, political correctness, sex in society

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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Filed under gender issues, political correctness, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, video games

Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Joel From “The Last Of Us”

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For the past few years, it has become a popular pasttime to label certain elements of popular culture as toxic or “problematic.” Take any character, song, plot, role, or trope from any brand of media. Apply an excessive amount of scrutiny, distorting it as much as necessary along the way. In the end, some people will find a way to make it offensive.

It’s through that process that shows like “Seinfeld” can be called racist. Movies like “Crocodile Dundee” can be called culturally insensitive. Movies like “Big” can be called creepy. Even classic video games like “Mario” and “Zelda” can be considered sexist. Scrutinize it enough and everything becomes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and culturally insensitive.

I find that whole process to be an exercise in trolling that does more to spark outrage than it does meaningful discussion. It’s the same process that created the idea of “toxic masculinity,” a concept I’ve gone out of my way to deconstruct on more than one occasion.

I don’t want to bemoan all the flaws and frustrations that occur when regressive attitudes mix with regressive agendas. There’s enough debate, discussion, and outright shouting going on in that field as it stands. Instead, I want to shift the tone of the conversation by going to the opposite end of the spectrum.

By that, I mean I’m going to do the opposite of highlighting something that some may find “problematic.” Instead, I’m going to cite something that I think is inherently positive from which we can learn. In fact, I’m going to try and coin a new phrase that’s more uplifting than some of the other buzzwords used by the regressive crowd.

I call it “noble masculinity.” It’s the idea that there are noble, admirable traits in male characters that are worth celebrating in the context of a larger story. Having talked so much about toxic masculinity and why I think it’s such a flawed concept, I feel it’s only fitting that I attempt to counter it with something more positive.

I know it’s popular to criticize and complain about male behaviors these days and, as a man, I don’t deny that we can do some foolish things. However, men are also capable of incredible acts of virtue. Those traits deserve more attention, if only to remind everyone that men can be more than outrage fodder.

There are a lot fictional male characters from movies, TV shows, video games, and comics that I could cite who embody positive masculine traits. Characters like Superman, John McClane, and even James Bond come to mind, although I’m sure there are some who would disagree with the last one.

However, in this initial exercise of exploring noble masculinity, I want to cite a lesser-known male character from popular, critically acclaimed video game that some have called the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of the console generation. That game is called “The Last of Us” and the source of the noble masculinity comes from Joel, the grizzled, yet vulnerable male protagonist of the story.

For those who haven’t played “The Last of Us” or just don’t play video games in general, Joel may initially come off as a mix of old cowboy tropes and John McClane rip-offs. However, by following his story, he reveals a level of depth that includes instances of noble masculinity that men and women alike can appreciate.

Joel’s story is not built on prophecies, superhuman abilities, or dumb luck. As a character and a person, Joel is largely defined by a grit that’s uniquely masculine in many ways. At the beginning of the game, he’s not looking to become part of some larger struggle. He’s just a single dad, trying to make a living and provide for his daughter, Sarah. In world full of dim-witted father figures, it’s pretty refreshing.

Then, within the first 10 minutes of the game, Joel suffers the greatest loss any parent can endure. He tries to protect his daughter from first stages of a full-blown apocalypse, but ultimately fails. He ends up watching his daughter die in his arms. It’s a very emotional moment, one in which Joel’s pain is palpable.

That defining moment establishes Joel as a man who fights to protect those he loves, but is all too human and very much at the mercy of forces beyond his control. There’s only so much that he do when the world around him is falling apart. No amount of anger, lament, or sorrow can change that. He, as a man and a survivor of this apocalypse, has to find a way to cope.

While his coping skills aren’t perfect, as evidenced in many powerful scenes throughout the game, Joel’s grief helps drive him. It also lays the foundation for the emotional development he undergoes after he meets Ellie, his young female co-protagonist who becomes a critical part of the gameplay and the story.

I could probably write another article about Ellie and why she’s one of the most compelling female characters in modern video games, but in the context of noble masculinity, she’s very much a catalyst for Joel’s emotional journey. Her own story is remarkable, but her influence on Joel is where she really shines.

It’s not a case of a knight rescuing a princess or a female character trying too hard to be an equal to her male compatriots. In fact, Joel’s first impression of Ellie isn’t a good one. She comes off as an irritable brat with a bad attitude. Essentially, she’s the kind of immature teenager that guys like Joel go out of their way to avoid.

However, their stories soon become intertwined. They end up having to work together, rely on each other, and fight for one another in order to survive a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by zombies, toxic fungus, and military-enforced curfews. Before long, they establish a bond that brings out the best and worst of both characters.

For Joel, the best is reflected in those same paternal instincts that caused him so much pain and sorrow at the beginning. He comes to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, of sorts. At times, he resists that and even gets upset when the idea is thrown in his face. In the end, though, he doesn’t avoid it.

As a result, Joel’s story embodies more than the love a father has for his child. It also reveals how willing a man is to form a bond with a total stranger, who is not even that nice to him in the beginning, and tries to protect them with that same paternal dedication. It doesn’t happen all at once. He even resists it at times. He still embraces it and all the tribulations that come with it.

That, more than anything, is the most important element of noble masculinity that Joel embodies. He’s not Superman, nor does he pretend to be. He’s also very aware of his own shortcomings, saying at one point that he trusts others more than he trusts himself. Most men are reluctant to acknowledge such insecurity, let alone reveal it. Joel doesn’t hide from it. If anything, he channels it.

It’s something that resonates with Ellie too. Throughout the game, she has opportunities to cut ties with him and go along with someone who might be better-equipped to help her. However, she choses to stay with Joel. Just as he comes to see her as a daughter, she comes to see him as a father.

The fact that he and Ellie go through this journey in the midst of an ongoing apocalypse makes their bond that much more powerful. It also requires that Joel push himself harder and confront the limitations that kept him from saving his daughter. Being a father made for great sorrow in the past, but it also made him stronger and more determined in the future.

That’s not to say that Joel doesn’t have his low points. There are moments where Joel does not come off as noble. Some even argue that his decisions towards the end of the game undermines his nobility. I would argue that it actually reinforces it.

When the world is already in the middle of an apocalypse and people are willing to sacrifice innocence for what they think is the greater good, then that’s when traits of noble masculinity become most critical. That’s when a father’s willingness to protect his child should be at its strongest.

That dedication still comes at a price. With a sequel in “The Last Of Us Part II” already in the works, it’s likely that Joel will continue to pay a price for his choices, however noble they might be. The fact that he still makes those choices and is willing to accept the risks reflects the challenges and strength that come with masculine drive.

Joel is probably not the greatest example of noble masculinity in all of fiction, but I would argue that his is the most relatable. He’s not perfect, nor does he pretend to be. He doesn’t have any capabilities that are impossible for other men to achieve. He’s a man who was utterly destroyed when he lost his daughter, but didn’t run from the chance to be a father again and to a total stranger, no less.

Flaws and shortcomings aside, I still contend that the noble masculinity that Joel shows throughout “The Last of Us” are far greater than any of the “toxic” traits that others may cite. In playing the game, it’s hard not to empathize with him or his journey, especially if you’re a parent. In appreciating his strengths, though, it shows that there is room for a brand of masculinity that anyone of any gender can admire.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, sex in media, video games

Stereotypes, The Simpsons, And The (Empty) Complaints About Apu

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For nearly three decades, our society has had an unspoken, but clear understanding. For something to become culturally relevant, it has to be mentioned “The Simpsons.” Whether it’s a major plot on something like boy bands or a subtle joke about a classic novel, it’s not truly a mainstream idea until it shows up on “The Simpsons.”

I happen to be among the demographic who have always lived in a world where the “The Simpsons” existed. I honestly cannot remember a time when this show wasn’t on the air or relevant in some ways. For a show that has been on the air for nearly 30 years, it’s remarkable just how much impact it has had, despite so many changes in trends, culture, technology, media, and tastes.

There have been controversial moments, though. I still remember how controversial it was when John Waters voiced a gay character on the show. That was considered controversial in 1997. Looking back on it, I can see why. The more recent controversies, however, are a bit harder to understand.

That brings me to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Springfield’s lovable Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart. I say he’s lovable because, for the most part, he’s one of the show’s most colorful side-characters and for the right reasons. He’s smart, he’s got a unique personality, and he’s undergone plenty of growth over the years.

However, according to a documentary by Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu called “The Problem With Apu,” this established character on an iconic TV show is contributing to a serious social ill in the world. The fact that Apu exists is a factor in the many causes of social injustice, racism, and bigotry. He’s almost as bad as video game characters being too sexy. If I could write that with more sarcasm, I would.

With all due respect to Mr. Kondabolu, who lives a minority in a country that has a spotty history with race to say the least,  I sincerely question his method for picking certain battles. There are many serious issues surrounding race relations in America and throughout the world. Those issues have all sorts of complexities and nuances to them.

Instead of scrutinizing those, however, he singles out a popular cartoon character to make his point. Even That doesn’t just undermine the serious issues he discusses in that movie. It ensures that his point will get lost in the collective groans of those who bemoan political correctness.

I know that whining about political correctness has become a source of whining in and of itself, but there is a continuum of sorts that separates serious issues about representation in the media from outright trolling. The separation isn’t always clear, but in the case of Apu and Mr. Kondabolu, it’s too petty to be subtle.

The idea that Apu is now problematic, a word that has gained a lot of frustrating connotations in recent years, sends an indirect message that I don’t think Mr. Kondabolu wanted to send. It’s not that racism and bigotry aren’t important issues. It’s the idea that anyone who enjoys “The Simpsons” and appreciates characters like Apu are somehow on the same level as old school, George Wallace level racists.

For most reasonable people, that notion is both insulting and absurd. Again, I doubt that’s the direct message Mr. Kondabolu was saying, but that’s the subtext of the message he sent with that documentary. “The Simpsons” and the people who enjoy it are somehow bad people and contributing to a problem.

Understandably, both fans and the creators of the show aren’t going to respond with homemade chocolates and hugs. Even though the creators promised to address it, the way they did so did not involve an extended apology about how the show has depicted Apu and paying massive reparations for all the hurt feelings it has caused.

Instead, they worked it into a side-plot in the episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” wherein Marge tries to rewrite her favorite book so that it’s free of anything that might be considered offensive in 2018. As many in Hollywood and the media are finding out the hard way these days, that’s next to impossible.

It all culminated in a moment where Marge and Lisa partially broke the fourth wall, Deadpool style, and indirectly confronted the controversy by basically saying that there’s not much you can do when old characters who weren’t offensive at first become offensive years later. Those characters exist, as do their stories. Lisa flat out asks to the camera, “What can you do?”

It’s a very relevant question that Mr. Kondabolu isn’t able to answer. In fact, I don’t think the question has an answer. At the very least, the scene didn’t mock him directly or discount his feelings. It was surprisingly even-handed for a show that regularly mocks popular trends. This is how the scene that played out.

Needless to say, that response rubbed plenty of people the wrong way, included Mr. Kondabolu. According to Entertainment Weekly, this was his response.

“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked?” wrote Kondabolu. “Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.” In another tweet, he said, “In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

I want to be sympathetic to Mr. Kondabolu’s feelings. I really do. However, the problem with his response is that he didn’t even try to answer the question that Lisa asked. She asked what can you do. He just whined that this response wasn’t the one he wanted from the show. On top of that, he didn’t even try to explain what he’d hoped to hear.

This why I find his protest of Apu so empty. It’s also why I find a lot of complaints about offensive characters or stereotypes so asinine. It’s not enough that someone is offended. They basically set it up so that there’s no way for them not to be offended. They present a problem with no solution. If they offer one, it’s vague and easy to move the goalposts when someone doesn’t respond to their satisfaction.

For Mr. Kondabolu, he doesn’t just move the goalposts, though. He essentially tries to play an entirely different game on an entirely different field and expects everyone else to know the score. Even by scrutinizing the content of his own documentary, Mr. Kondabolu reveals just how misguided his arguments are. In another article by Entertainment Weekly, this was his justification for singling out Apu.

As Kondabolu made clear in his film, the problem with Apu extends beyond a brown character voiced by a white actor; the problem was not just with The Simpsons, but with its viewers, the drunk idiots on the street who call any South-Asian person “Apu” and who repeated “Thank you, come again,” as a mocking refrain.

I highlighted those bold parts because they’re the most revealing part of Mr. Kondabolu’s argument, as well as the greatest flaw. He links the depiction of Apu to the “drunk idiots” who harass people like him of South-Asian descent. From his perspective, the problem isn’t the drunk idiots doing the harassing. It’s the cartoon character.

In that context, it’s understandable why even a bleeding heart liberal like Lisa Simpson, a notable lover of cartoons, wouldn’t take up Mr. Kondabolu’s cause like she has so many others. It’s not just empty. It completely overlooks the actual source of the problem, namely the drunk idiots.

Are they drunk idiots because they watched “The Simpsons?” Are they drunk idiots towards people of South-Asian descent because of Apu and the stereotype he represents? Well, if that’s the argument Mr. Kondabolu is going to make, then he’s got a much bigger problem. “The Simpsons” are full of so many other stereotypes that to single just one out as “problematic” isn’t just asinine. It’s petty.

Homer Simpson is a stereotype of a dimwitted, drunk middle class working stiff.

Lisa Simpson is a stereotype of a whiny, bleeding heart liberal social justice lover.

Marge Simpson is a stereotype of a nagging housewife.

Groundskeeper Willie is a stereotype of an angry Scotsman.

Barney Gumble is a stereotype of a fat, drunk alcoholic slob.

Cletus Spuckler is a stereotype of a white trash hillbilly.

Luigi Risotto is a stereotype of an Italian chef.

Fat Tony is a stereotype of an Italian mobster.

I could go on, but with nearly 30 years of characters, “The Simpsons” has such a huge cast of characters that there’s no way I could list every character and the stereotype they represent. In fact, it’s because “The Simpsons” has so many characters and so much history that it’s possible to find a character that embodies an offensive stereotype of some type. The only requirement is that you have to be really petty.

That’s what Mr. Kondabolu had to do. He had to get really petty to single out Apu, which also required he ignore the real, non-animated people who were harassing minorities. Again, none of this is to say that racism and harassment aren’t problems. They are. However, when highlighting this issue requires a level of pettiness that involves singling out cartoon characters, then there’s something wrong with that approach.

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Gender, Equality, And The Pain That Binds Us

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Imagine, for a moment, there are two kids playing on a playground. Both are young, rowdy, and energetic. They run around, rough-house, and engage in the kind of reckless fun you would expect of most kids.

Then, at some point, they both run into each other. They both get hurt, sustaining similar bruises and experiencing similar pain. They both start crying. Those cries are equally loud and they each shed the same volume of tears. Naturally, this gets the attention of nearby adults.

However, in responding to the cries, one child ends up getting more attention than the others. Most crowd around that child, offering solace and treatment. All the while, the other child is still crying just as loudly. Only a handful of other adults tend to that child, but the crying and the pain persist.

Does what I just describe sound fair? Does the idea of one child’s pain getting more attention than the other strike seem wrong to you? Absent any larger context or notable personality disorders, I believe most people would agree. The idea that one child’s pain warrants more attention than others is wrong. It offends that innate sense of empathy and justice that binds us as humans.

I tell this story to make an important point about pain. To some extent, pain is the ultimate egalitarian. It doesn’t care about your gender, your race, your ethnic background, your politics, your ideology, or your religion. It also doesn’t care about how many arguments you win, how much virtue signaling you do, or how informed you may be. It still hurts all the same.

Pain is, effectively, the one uniting force that reasonable and unreasonable people alike can agree on. It affects us all. Too much of it can leave lasting scars. When someone’s pain is ignored or overlooked, it still feels like an injustice. On the most basic level, pain reveals just how similar we are in the grand scheme of things.

I make this important point in lieu of a revealing conversation I had with someone on Reddit. Every now and then, you find yourself interact with people who help you come to profound realizations without seeking them in the first place. It’s a conversation that I feel is worth sharing, if only to thank the person who inspired it.

The conversation began with a woman posting a brief inquiry in the Men’s Rights subreddit. That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable and says a lot about the woman. She identifies herself as a feminist, yet she goes out of her way to start a conversation in a place that is sure to have differing opinions. In this era of highly bias media exposure, we should all take a moment to appreciate her open-mindedness.

The substance of her post was not combative or hostile. At no point did she come off as anything other than sincere and curious. These are the exact words she used to start the conversation.

I’m a woman and for lack of a better term a feminist and to be honest I don’t understand why there has to be conflict between men’s rights and women’s rights. The way society is set up at the moment I think women face more challenges, the majority of which are created by men. But on the flip side men also face challenges due to their gender, but these problems are often created by men as well. I’m not saying for either gender men create all the problems, as women we have to step up and acknowledge what we do as well.

I guess what I’m asking is why not try and work with the feminist movement?

When I first read this post, I admit I was somewhat worried about the reaction it would generate. In my vast experience with Reddit and message boards, people who go out of their way to talk to those who disagree with them tend to start conversations that get easily derailed. Whether it’s feminism or Star Trek, people can get pretty passionate with their opinions and that can cause problems.

In reading through some of the comments, there were indeed some crass remarks. You see those in almost any subreddit or message board in some form or another. Not everyone was reasonable during the conversation, but I still felt it was a conversation worth having.

That’s why I made it a point to submit some comments of my own. In doing so, and getting a few generous responses from the woman, I came to this critical realization about pain and how it affects gender issues, double standards, and identity politics as a whole.

When you get down to the most fundamental level, it all comes back to pain. Feminism, men’s rights, the LGBT community, racial politics, ethnic conflicts, and even clashes within a sub-culture all build their movements around the pain their group experiences.

Whether it’s political oppression, social stigma, legal discrimination, or just plain hostility, these groups and the agendas they pursue are forged by the pain they experience. The most divisive part of that agenda, though, is the idea that their pain matters more than others.

With respect to gender, which was the primary topic of the discussion the woman started, much of the arguments could be broken down into categories of pain. For the feminist crowd, the pain they experience from discrimination, slut shaming, harassment, reproductive rights, and specific health issues takes priority and understandably so.

It’s just as understandable that the men’s rights crowd would prioritize the pain they experience by damaging double standards, legal discrimination, circumcision, social pressures, and violent victimization. When they feel their pain is deemed less important or trivial, it doesn’t just inspire resentment. It sends the message that someone else’s pain doesn’t matter.

That very notion, the idea that someone else’s pain is more important than another, undermines some of the most fundamental facets of our humanity. That’s not to say there aren’t times when certain pain takes priority. When there’s an ongoing atrocity, like a mass shooting or a war crime, then that’s an instance where we should prioritize that pain.

It’s an indirect message that few intend to send, but many find themselves surmising. A woman stands up and should that their pain is important. Others interpret that as her saying that the pain of men doesn’t matter. A man does the same, shouting that their pain is important. Even if they’re wholly sincere, women interpret that as opposition.

When it comes to discussions about gender politics, racial politics, ideology, or social justice, though, the act of elevating someone else’s pain over the other will only ever serve to breed resentment. It’s rarely direct, but that’s exactly what makes it so impactful.

If there’s one message that I took away from the conversation, it’s that one person’s pain can undermine the other when agendas take priority over understanding. Whether they’re feminist, men’s rights, LGBT, religious, or racial in nature, building that agenda around a particular pain requires that it be elevated to some extent.

That may be understandable within a certain context, but when the agenda takes on the character of an ideology, it turns that pain into a force for division. Given our tribal nature, those divisions can widen considerably and at a time when there are over 7.6 billion of us, that can be more damaging.

Even with these divisions, the conversation with that woman gave me hope because it reminded me of just how similar we are when you get down to it. We all experience pain in our lives. We all tend to elevate our own pain compared to that of others. However, the fact that we’re all vulnerable to such pain proves that we’re more equal than we think.

I believe we can take comfort in that, if only to remind ourselves that our pain matters as much as those of others. We are, at the end of the day, a compassionate species. We may have any number of ways to divide ourselves, but we have far more powerful ways to bring us together.

To the woman who posted that message, I sincerely thank you. I hope your effort will inspire others as much as they inspired me.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, sex in society, sexuality