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John Oliver, Sex Dolls, And The (Unwarranted) Shaming Of Lonely Men

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There’s a general rule in comedy with respect to insults. If you’re going to demean, denigrate, or make fun of a particular person or group, you don’t want to punch down. Granted, you can do it. You can even get a few laughs out of it if you do it well and are exceptionally funny. However, in the grand scheme of things, you’re still an asshole.

It’s the main reason why comedians, be they stand-up comics or talk show hosts, generally direct their insults at the rich, powerful, and privileged. There’s a general understanding that if you’re doing well in this chaotic game of life, either through luck or talent, you can afford to take a few insults. At the end of the day, you can still go home and cry into a pile of money, fame, and affluence.

When you insult a group that has none of those things in any abundance, it’s usually not something people respect, even if they laugh. It’s why even great comedians like George Carlin had to be very careful and exceptionally skilled when he joked about rape.

We miss you, George. We miss you SO much.

Unfortunately, not everyone can be as funny or talented as George Carlin. Sometimes, insult comedy hits an undeserving target. It tends to reveal something about the comedian delivering the insult and where society is, in terms of sympathies. It’s often subtle, but the subtext is there and it has larger implications.

That brings me to John Oliver, the nerdy smart-ass British comedian who owes 95 percent of his fame to John Stewart. His show, “Last Week Tonight,” has won multiple Emmy awards and has garnered substantial praise for its colorful approach to tackling major issues, from the abortion debate to annoying robocalls to the flaws in standardized testing.

While I don’t agree with Mr. Oliver’s politics all the time or his approach to tackling certain issues, I consider myself a fan of his show. Compared to other satirical comedy shows, he tends to strike just the right balance between quality comedy and tackling serious issues.

However, he recently took a comedic jab that deviated from his usual style and not in a good way. It occurred during his episode that focused on China’s controversial One Child Policy. It’s an issue that has been subject to plenty of controversy for years and I think Mr. Oliver was right to talk about it.

One of the major consequences of this policy, which Mr. Oliver rightly pointed out, was how it led to a massive gender population imbalance. Due to a historic preference for sons, there are millions more men than women in China. The disparity is so great that it has caused major social upheavals.

While discussing some of those upheavals, the issue of sex dolls came up. In a country where there are so many lonely men, it makes sense that they would seek some form of outlet and it helps that the market of sex dolls is growing. This is where Mr. Oliver did a little punching down and, unlike his jabs at New Zealand, this didn’t have the same impact. See for yourself in this clip.

Take a moment to consider what he’s joking about here. There are millions of men in China who, through no fault of their own, are likely doomed to a life of loneliness. It’s not because they’re bad men. They’re not creepy, cruel, or misogynistic. They’re just at the mercy of math and demographics. There simply aren’t enough women in their country.

For these men, the old saying that there’s plenty of fish in the sea is an outright lie. Their options are limited and Mr. Oliver is making light of that. He essentially claims that men who use sex dolls are somehow even more pathetic and destined for more loneliness. He makes that claim as someone who is married, has a child, and doesn’t have to deal with those prospects.

It’s not just bad comedy. It’s hypocritical. Earlier in that same clip, he showed sympathy and understanding to a Chinese woman who was forced to have an abortion against her will. He’s shown similar sympathy to people in other situations, from women dealing with restrictive abortion laws to prisoners who had been screwed over by an unfair justice system.

Why would he show no sympathy for these lonely men?

Moreover, why would he make a joke about it?

To some extent, it’s not all on him. There is an egregious double standard when it comes to men who use sex toys. A woman can walk into a sex shop, buy a vibrator, and talk about using it without too much stigma. Sure, there will be a few repressive, sex-negative religious zealots who will complain about anything that gives anyone unsanctioned pleasure, but most people don’t take them seriously.

For men, however, there’s a taboo surrounding the use of sex toys in any capacity. Some of that comes from men more than women. There’s this not-so-subtle assumption that a man who needs a sex toy is somehow less manly. Any man who has to resort to one must be somehow deficient. It can’t just be that he’s lonely or wants to use new tools to please his lover. That would make too much sense.

For the men in China, and other areas where there’s a huge gender disparity, the situation is even worse. These are men who are facing both loneliness and sexual frustration. There’s more than a little evidence that this is not healthy for them on any level. That’s not to say that sex dolls or sex toys will help fill that void, but it will give them an outlet, just as a vibrator gives a lonely woman an outlet.

Unlike a lonely woman, though, these men can’t expect much sympathy. As Mr. Oliver demonstrates, they can expect plenty of shame and stigma. It doesn’t matter that they can’t do anything about their situation. They’re victims of circumstance, demographics, and basic math. Adding stigma and taboo to the mix is akin to kicking them in the balls on the worst day of their lives.

I won’t say that Mr. Oliver should apologize for his remark. He’s a comedian. He’s a citizen in a free country. He can say what he wants. However, the fact that he can joke about lonely men and still get a laugh says a lot about the current attitudes towards lonely men, in general.

We know they’re suffering. We know there’s not much they can do about it, especially in places like China. While we’ll give plenty of sympathy to the lonely women who resort to using sex toys, we’ll stick to shaming and stigmatizing the men who dare to do the same. Then, we’ll pretend to be surprised when they get angry and resentful.

Is that fair? No, it isn’t.

Is that funny? No, I argue that it’s not, especially with the way Mr. Oliver went about it.

He’s no George Carlin. He’s no John Stewart, either. In this particular case, he’s just an asshole.

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What Does It Mean For A Woman To “Own” Her Sexuality?

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In a perfect world, human sexuality wouldn’t be so political. From  a biological and societal standpoint, the fundamentals are simple.

Two people meet.

They gauge one another’s interest.

They decide to engage in an intimate relationship.

Together, they make a mutual effort to enjoy the fruits of that relationship.

Ideally, an expression of sexuality is a mutual exchange between two people seeking an intimate connection. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a heterosexual relationship, a homosexual relationship, or something more elaborate. So long as those involved are willing, considerate, and open, everyone shares in the benefits.

Sadly, we don’t live in that perfect world. Like it or not, human sexuality is one of the most politically charged topics anyone can discuss. It’s connected to hot button issues like abortion, sexual assault, domestic violence, child welfare, poverty, crime, human trafficking, and even religion. Considering its role in propagating our species, it’s understandable why discussions about about it get heated.

That said, some of those discussions are political for all the wrong reasons. A few are even built on a foundation of absurdities that only serve to distort our perspectives on human sexuality and not in a good way. One of those discussions involve the idea of a woman “owning her sexuality.”

This idea isn’t new, but it has become a more common refrain in recent years, often in conjunction with media depictions of female sexuality. It’s become a slogan, of sorts, for whenever a female celebrity or fictional character does something that’s sexually empowering. Depending on where someone is on the political spectrum, they’ll either cheer or scorn their actions.

However, what constitutes “sexual empowerment” is poorly defined and exceedingly inconsistent. In some cases, empowerment involves a woman being more sexual than society at large deems appropriate. In other cases, empowerment involves a woman being less sexual or less feminine. Here are just a few examples.

When Miley Cyrus was nude in one of her music videos, some saw this as empowering.

When Lara Croft was redesigned to be less sexy in her 2014 reboot, some saw this as empowering.

When Muslim women justify restrictive Islamic dress codes, some saw this as empowering.

When some women decided to stop shaving their body hair, some saw this as empowering.

Regardless of what form it takes, the empowerment is framed as women either reclaiming or owning their sexual selves. What it means is often vague, but it usually carries a particular set of connotations.

To own one’s sexuality is to break a set of unspoken rules, give the finger to an unjust system, and forge your own sexual path. It’s like that moment in every great sports movie where the underdog beats the odds and triumphs over their evil opponents. In that triumph, their notion of what constitutes a fair and just expression of human sexuality is vindicated. All others are somehow flawed.

I concede that this is a gross generalization, but it’s the most common narrative I see whenever there’s a story about a woman owning her sexuality. It’s built around the assumption that female sexuality is always the underdog and to own it, a woman needs to somehow seize it from the clutches of repressive, misogynistic men.

Now, I don’t deny that there are many injustices in the current social landscape. Historically, female sexuality has been subject to seriously repressive taboos. Even today, there are still various taboos about female sexual pleasure. Many women genuinely suffer because of it. The idea of women enjoying sex as much as men is still jarring to some people. Some even find it threatening.

In that sense, I don’t blame women for wanting to embrace their sexual selves in an environment that treats their sexuality as tool for political issues or marketing. Like men, they have feelings and desires. They have every right to pursue them with the same passion as anyone else. When it comes to “owning” it, though, the terminology tends to obscure that pursuit.

The fact that “owning” your sexuality can mean so many different things ensures it ultimately means very little. It has become one of those vague, catch-all terms that’s supposed to mark something as meaningful, progressive, or enlightened. In many cases, it comes down to people using sexuality to provoke a reaction, garner attention, or protest an injustice.

While I’m in favor of protesting sexual injustices, the fact that “owning your sexuality” is such an ambiguous act makes it a poor form of protest. All it does is assert that you can make choices about how you express your sexuality and you’re willing to endure the criticism. That doesn’t say anything about the injustice itself.

If anything, the very concept of owning your sexuality raises more questions than answers. To own something implies possession. The fact that a woman owning her sexuality is so celebrated implies that the woman didn’t possess it in the first place. If that’s the case, then when was it taken from her? At what point did she not own it? What did she have to overcome in order to get it back?

To some extent, for a woman to own her sexuality, she and others like her must buy into the idea that someone else governs it to some extent. In some cases, it’s the media with their depictions of idealized feminine beauty. In others, it’s repressive religious dogma that seeks to control female sexuality.

While there are real instances of women having to escape repressive environments, there’s a big difference between a female celebrity posing nude for a magazine and a woman being brutally punished for committing adultery. One involves someone escaping a coercive force that causes them real physical harm. The other involves them doing something that will only subject them to harsh scrutiny, at worst.

In that context, a woman owning her sexuality is no different than willingly enduring extra criticism and aggressive slut shaming. Can it be excessive? It certainly can be. Is it the same as someone putting their life and their body at risk in order to express their sexuality? I would argue that it isn’t.

I know my opinion may not count for much on this issue since I’m a heterosexual man. I concede that there’s only so much I can understand about the female experience. At the same time, I feel inclined to point out that men are human too. Men are also burdened by various taboos and double standards. As such, a man “owning his sexuality” is subject to entirely different standards.

The fact that those standards are so different implies that there’s little substance behind the concept. If a woman can act overtly sexual in one instance and exercise extreme modesty, yet claim to own her sexuality in both cases, then where does the ownership come in? At what point is it any different than just making choices and living with them?

If there is no difference, then the concept is ultimately pointless.

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The (Surprising) Sources And Implications Of Slut Shaming

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As a fan of romance and people exploring their sexy side, I’m generally opposed to slut shaming. I understand why it exists, to some extent. Nearly every society in history has had certain hang-ups about sex. Considering its role in propagating the species, it’s understandable that people give it extra scrutiny.

That said, I consider slut shaming a misguided form of scrutiny. The definition, itself, has some ugly implications that go far beyond the inherent risks associated with being reckless, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

For one, it’s almost entirely heaped upon women. James Bond never gets called a slut for his promiscuous behavior. Instead, he gets to be a masculine icon. A woman who has just as much sex gets called a slut and is often painted as deviant. Look no further than legendary Bond girls like Xania Onatopp and Pussy Galore for proof of that.

While it can be pretty overt in popular media, it’s even more pernicious in real life. From women who choose wear revealing clothing to those who actively attempt to confront sexual stigma, there’s no shortage of shaming from multiple directions. It’s frustrating in that it amounts to incessant whining about how other people choose to live their lives, but recent research has cast slut shaming in a new light.

A study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior attempted to analyze how behaviors associated with slut shaming differed among genders. The popular narrative is that men do most of the slut shaming. The logic is that men see beautiful women having a lot of sex. That bothers them because those women aren’t having sex with them.

Granted, that’s a gross generalization that I’m sure many men and even a few women find offensive. Despite the details, that is the common narrative and it tends to play out in one too many teen comedies. However, science has a way of disrupting those narratives in unexpected ways.

The study revealed that while men and women were equally likely to not trust promiscuous women, women who were more likely to favor punishing those women. In a comprehensive summary conducted by PsyPost, the differences were pretty striking.

“In the study, participants played one of three kinds of economic decision-making games. The participants were led to believe they were playing against a female opponent in real-time, but were actually only interacting with computerized responses.

The opponents varied in whether they appeared to be sexually accessible or sexually restricted. For some participants, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing a tight, red outfit and an abundance of makeup. For others, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing loose-fitting clothing with less makeup.

The researchers found that both male and female participants were less willing to share money with a woman wearing the tight outfit. The participants also trusted sexually-accessible opponents with a financial investment less than sexually-restrictive opponents.

Women, but not men, were also willing to inflict punishments on a sexually-accessible female opponent who made an unfair offer, even though it left them empty-handed as well.

Given the choice between receiving a small sum of money while their opponent took a large sum or having neither player receive any money at all, women tended to pick the latter option.”

Take a moment to comprehend what this does to the slut shaming narrative. For those who idealize that 1950s sitcom family life that never truly existed, it’s an aberration. While those women make for good one-night-stands, they hardly make for quality long-term relationships.

Why, then, would men be reluctant to punish those women? I’ve noted before how society tends to micromanage women’s bodies. Slut shaming is only a half-measure because it offers no tangible punishment. While certain societies don’t mind punishing promiscuous women, it doesn’t appear to be entirely predicated on male attitudes.

This study shows that women are just as mistrustful of promiscuous women and are willing to go further in terms of punishing their behavior. The reasons for this are difficult to surmise. The researchers hypothesized that men were primarily concerned with avoiding investment in a child that wasn’t theirs. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s something to avoid, but not punish.

Conversely, women may be more concerned with the bigger picture. The researchers surmised that women had an evolutionary imperative to keep the cost of sex high to improve their value as potential partners. Actively punishing potential rivals further served that purpose.

From a logistical standpoint, it makes sense. They see beautiful, promiscuous women as people who use cheat codes in video games. They have an unfair advantage when it comes to attracting potential partners and that has significant consequences, especially to those who aren’t beautiful or sexually flexible.

Beyond distracting partners who might otherwise be interested in them, it lowers the value of the sex they have to offer. Why would men be as interested in having sex with them when there are promiscuous women who were willing to give it to them for a lower cost with fewer strings?

While I believe this may be a factor for some women, it’s also another broad generalization that would offend more than a few women. It assumes too much about how they think and feel. Believing women slut shame because it hinders their own sexual value is as absurd as blaming all misogyny on some vast patriarchal conspiracy.

Like all research, the study is limited and can only reveal so much about the complexities of human behavior. The researchers themselves freely admitted this, but that’s exactly why it warrants further study. Like it or not, slut shaming is still prominent in most modern societies. I would argue that the internet and social media are making it worse.

At the same time, I also believe that slut shaming is something we should confront. It causes real harm to real people. It damages our love lives, our sex lives, and everything in between. There are instances in which someone’s irresponsible sexual behavior genuinely warrants scrutiny, but shaming can only serve to make things worse, even for people who aren’t sluts.

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Why More Men Are Confiding In Sex Workers

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Where do you turn to when you need to confide in someone? Who can you trust to listen to your problems, not judge you, and show you basic human decency? Some people are lucky enough to have one or more person they can turn to during difficult times.

For me, it’s my parents. Both my mother and my father have always been there for me, no matter what I’m going through. I can tell them anything and I know they’ll listen. They won’t judge me. They won’t tell me to just suck it up. They’ve helped me through some pretty difficult times and I love them deeply for that.

Some people aren’t as lucky. They don’t have close friends or family members they feel they can turn to. This is especially true for those with poor social skills or severe social anxieties. These issues affect everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. However, in recent years, the impact on men has been more pronounced.

As a result, some of those men have been turning to an unexpected source when they need to confide in someone. It’s not friends, family members, or licensed therapists. It’s sex workers. While there are plenty of ugly politics surrounding sex work, some of which I’ve discussed, this unusual phenomenon makes sense, albeit for tragic reasons.

Rather than speculate on those reasons, I’ll let Nicole Emma share the distressing details from her recent Ted Talk. While I strongly recommend everyone to listen to the full lecture, this one anecdote she shared nicely sums up the issue.

“Yesterday, a miracle happened. Since my wife passed, I’ve been very lonely. I haven’t so much as been hugged in over two years. I’m not handsome. I’m not rich. I don’t know how to talk to women, but you held me. You rubbed my back. You listened to me vent about my grief. This might just be a job for you, but today you saved my life.”

Think about this aside from the fact that a man hired a sex worker. This man was lonely, having lost his wife and not experienced much physical intimacy since then. He’s not some charismatic character from a beer commercial. He’s just an ordinary man with the same basic needs as everyone else. He felt like he couldn’t meet those needs so he turned to a sex worker.

Why he felt this way is difficult to surmise, but as a man, I can make a few educated guesses. Like it or not, there’s a stigma associated with men who share their insecurities. I learned that first-hand last year when I dealt with the death of someone very close to me. Even though I was comfortable confiding in my parents, I still felt inclined to hold back.

I know I’m not the only man who has felt this and there are people far smarter than me who have studied this. There are many factors behind this taboo. Some will blame “toxic masculinity,” a flawed concept at best. Others will attribute it to certain expectations about men that we simply don’t scrutinize as much as we should.

Regardless of the cause, the issue comes back to having few outlets for their feelings. Not everyone can afford a therapist and some are even reluctant to share these sentiments online. Given the prevalence of trolling these days, I can’t say I blame them. In that context, a sex worker is in a perfect position to help these men.

Yes, I’m aware that may be a poor choice of words.

Logistically, it provides them with something clear and transparent. The man knows what the woman wants. The woman knows what the man wants. The price is clear and predetermined. There’s no uncertainty or mixed messages.

Beyond the logistics, the exchange fulfills some of basic of needs. There’s actual, physical intimacy. There’s no screen between the man and the sex worker. There’s real human contact and that, in and of itself, provides significant health benefits. Add the inherent health benefits of orgasms and the impact of a sex worker can be more therapeutic than any therapist.

Even without the sex, a sex worker offers the man something that’s difficult to find, even in today’s hyper-connected world. For once, they’re with someone who will listen to them in a way that’s objective, unbiased, and free of judgment. A sex worker may see them as a client, but part of their work involves providing intimacy. Oftentimes, the line between physical and emotional intimacy isn’t clear.

Ms. Emma, having been a sex worker for years, understood that and, based on her personal testimony, she did her job very well. That man she referenced benefited from having that kind of intimacy. Unlike a therapist or a counselor, she didn’t treat him as someone who was sick or in need of medication. She just treated him as a lonely man who needed some intimacy.

I think many men can empathize with that situation. I doubt don’t that women can empathize with it as well. Sometimes, you don’t want therapy and you don’t want the complexities of other social interactions. You just want someone who provides a service that allows you to feel some basic level of emotional and physical intimacy.

Regardless of how you feel about the legality of prostitution or the men who hire sex workers, there’s no denying that this sort of intimacy is a fundamental need. We’ve seen what happens when people don’t get it. In recent years, we’ve seen it get downright ugly and hateful.

People need emotional and physical outlets, regardless of gender. The fact that sex workers are the primary outlet for some men is emblematic of a much larger problem. Beyond the taboos, stigmas, and misguided gender politics, we’re still human. We all still seek intimate connections. Without it, people will suffer and ignoring that suffering will only make it worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why America Chavez Failed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lessons For The Future

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

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

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

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

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

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

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

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

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

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Masculinity, Feelings, And The Taboo Of Expressing Emotions

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Real men don’t get all touchy-feely with their emotions. How many times have you heard that said in one way or another? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe a better question would be why is it that men can’t get emotional without it being a flaw?

Whatever way you frame the question, it’s hard to deny that there’s an unspoken taboo when it comes to men expressing emotions. A man who gets emotional is seen as weak. He’ll get called a sissy, a wimp, or a pussy. Their ego takes a hit. Their reputation and sense of worth takes a hit. As a result, men have little choice but to suppress their emotions, which is objectively unhealthy.

Conversely, a woman who gets emotional tends not to get criticized. For them, showing emotions is normal. We don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to cry during an emotionally distressing experience. We don’t see that as a sign of weakness. If anything, we would be more concerned if they didn’t show emotion.

It’s a strange, but impactful dynamic. One gender is allowed to express a wide range of emotions without ridicule. The other is expected to suppress those emotions. For men, the only acceptable emotion, it seems, is anger. Men being angry is the only emotion they can show that isn’t entirely taboo, although even that is changing.

The same regressive attitudes that create meaningless terms like “toxic masculinity” adds even more constraints on men’s emotions. Now, a man isn’t even allowed to be angry anymore. His anger just identifies him as another member of a toxic culture that hates women, despises minorities, and wants to create a patriarchal world where they’re all Don Draper.

I hope I don’t need to explain why that notion is wrong, misguided, and just plain asinine. That’s not the purpose of this piece.

I bring this topic up because, as a man, I’ve felt the impact of these attitudes on a personal level. There are a lot of stereotypes about men and masculinity that don’t bother me because the effects are usually overblown or exaggerated. This is one issue where I’ve felt genuine distress.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m a big romance fan. I love romance in comics, movies, TV shows, and even video games. I’ve been a fan of all things romantic since I was a teenager. However, a young man who admits that enjoys romance is likely to get a lot of odd looks from men and women. Nobody ever told me that it’s uncool for men to like romance, but that’s the impression I got.

As a result, I was downright secretive about my love of romance. I wouldn’t mention romantic sub-plots in movies or TV shows among friends or family. I often had to seek out romantic media covertly. There were even occasions where I would be watching something with heavy romance on TV, but change the channel as soon as someone entered the room.

At times, I treated hiding my fondness for romance with the same tact as most men would in hiding their porn stash. If anything, hiding porn would’ve been easier because most people expect men to enjoy that. A man admitting he watches porn won’t surprise anyone these days. A man admitting he enjoys romance doesn’t have that luxury.

That sounds melodramatic on my part and in hindsight, it probably was. However, being a man, I didn’t want to deal with that extra scrutiny. Growing up, I already had other personal issues to deal with, including a terrible acne problem that killed my confidence for most of my youth. The last thing I needed was another reason to feel like a freak.

Eventually, it helped when I found online communities full of romance fans who were men, women, gay, straight, bisexual, and everything in between. That finally gave me an outlet and it’s a big reason why I started writing sexy stories. While I’ve come to appreciate that outlet, it was still frustrating having to hide the fact that I liked romance. If I weren’t a man, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

As hard as that was, the cost of managing emotions as a man can get much higher. Just this past year, I’ve felt the extent of that cost in ways I honestly can’t put into words. It started with the passing of my grandmother. Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done before.

I had to go through so many painful feelings during that process. I couldn’t tell you whether I handled them well. I like to think I did, but I can’t say with a straight face that I successfully managed my emotions through that whole ordeal. There was a lot I had to either temper or suppress.

It wasn’t because someone was stopping me. There weren’t a cabal of other men actively shaming me for feeling sadness, sorrow, and grief. There weren’t teams of women questioning my masculinity because I dared to show unmanly emotions. As a man, I just didn’t know how to express these feelings. There was just a sense that this wasn’t something men did.

I think it’s only getting harder as masculinity, itself, faces more scrutiny. Nobody can seem to agree on when it’s okay for men to get emotional or how they should go about it. We just know there’s a high price for screwing up. Think about the kinds of criticisms men face if they don’t put on the tough, confident poise of James Bond.

A man who shows too much anger is just a product of toxic masculinity.

A man who cries openly is overly sensitive.

A man who is overly romantic is either whipped or domesticated.

A man who shows sadness is weak and incapable.

A man who tries to talk about his feelings is either mansplaining or whining.

Given all these pitfalls, how is a man supposed to go about expressing his emotions? Just being strong isn’t enough anymore because strength has steadily become more gender neutral. While I think that’s a good thing for men and women alike, I also believe that dealing with emotions is a major blind spot in the world of gender politics.

That’s not to say this issue is being ignored. In wake of the anti-harassment movement, there has been some efforts to re-evaluate how we think about men and emotion. A few tech companies have even formed private men’s groups where men can get together and do more than discuss these issues, among other things.

I can already hear some men saying those groups are for wimps. Some might even doubt the masculinity of the men who participate. That’s understandable. These kinds of attitudes don’t change overnight. However, between the growing suicide rate among men and the impact emotions have on mental health, this is an issue worth confronting.

I won’t say yet whether these groups will be effective at helping men with their emotions, but I believe it’s a start. I also believe that this is one issue in which men and women can come together on. Other parts of the anti-harassment movement and modern feminism are bound to be divisive. This can actually be a unifying force.

Human beings are emotional creatures. No matter how masculine you are or how feminine you are, you’re going to experience a wide range of emotions over the course of your life. If one gender can’t even figure out which emotions are socially acceptable, then how can we hope to forge emotional bonds with one another?

I don’t doubt that emotions are difficult to deal with. I’ve learned that the hard way this past year. I know plenty of other men who are going through the same struggle. In the end, being able and comfortable expressing feelings should be one of the most gender-neutral aspects of the human experience.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

Controlling Women’s Bodies Versus Policing Men’s Thoughts

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Discussing gender issues, whether it’s from a feminist perspective or a male perspective, is fraught with problems. I’m not just referring to the hashtags, virtue signaling, systemic deficiencies, or historic injustices, either. Talk to anyone on any part of the political spectrum for more than five minutes and you’ll realize something very quickly.

Addressing gender issues isn’t just difficult. It’s frustrating.

By that, I don’t mean that it’s impossible to have a productive conversation. There are just certain aspects of that conversation that are intractable. We’ll never be able to agree because we’ll never be on the same page.

Women will point out the historic abuses and injustices perpetrated by men.

Men will point out the inherent advantages and privileges that women are afforded.

Women will bemoan instances of harassment, toxic masculinity, and patriarchal oppression.

Men will cite instances of egregious double standards, male disposability, and cultural marginalization.

Those in the transgender community will point out how both sides are guilty of denigrating their community.

From the most radical of feminists to the most egregious misogynist, there seems to be no common ground. It fuels a great deal of the perpetual outrage culture surrounding gender. Whatever your ideology, it feels like there’s no underlying thread through which we can get to the heart of the conflict.

While I don’t claim to be an expert in feminism, men’s issues, or gender, I’ve written enough about these topics to gain some insight. In doing so, I wish to do something other than complain about the state of gender politics. Instead, I’d like to offer an idea that I believe puts many gender-driven conflicts into a more cohesive context.

The primary catalyst for gender conflicts boils down to controlling women’s bodies versus policing men’s thoughts.

I know it’s a generalization, one that seems too simple to cover so many complicated issues. However, the connections are there. If you take a step back, it’s possible to see how many current and past issues involving gender came down to this simple dynamic.

To understand its implications, take a moment to think about the different ways we judge men and women. Consider how we do it now, how we’ve done it in the past, and the ways we justify it. When you look at the big picture, there are some clear patterns.

Take, for example, the extent to which modesty and chastity is emphasized for women. In both modern Islamic cultures and ancient agrarian cultures, a virtuous woman was one who didn’t show off her body, didn’t have promiscuous sex, and didn’t thrust herself into major issues. At the same time, modesty in men is never mentioned.

Why is this? I know some feminists will cite the nefarious patriarchy as the source of all female marginalization. That makes for a great melodrama, but it does not reflect reality. I know I’ll upset a few feminists here when I say this, but I think it needs to be said.

The obsession over the female body has nothing to do with patriarchy and everything to do with the fact that women bear children. That’s the one intractable difference between men and women that no ideology can deny. One gender has to carry the future of the species inside their bodies for nine months and the other doesn’t.

Any woman who has endured a pregnancy can attest that this process is strenuous, to say the least. Unfortunately, it’s necessary for the continuation of our species and, by default, the growth of society. From a purely pragmatic perspective, it makes sense to micromanage female bodies.

We need female bodies to be healthy and safe in order to bear children. The fact that, for much of recorded history, men needed to be certain those children were theirs for the inheritance of property only increased that need. Women who were promiscuous, injured, or in any way damaged didn’t just result in their own suffering. It could cause the entire tribe to suffer.

It certainly doesn’t help that we had a limited understanding of human biology and disease until recently. It also doesn’t help that these values of protecting female bodies became enshrined in religion and culture, some of which are still practiced today. This emphasis on controlling the female body is the foundation on which many taboos, traditions, and tropes are built.

On that same foundation is the other side of that dynamic that involves policing the thoughts of men. By that, I don’t just mean men acting immature at the sight of a naked woman or cringing at discussions concerning female biology. I’m talking about a mentality that builds assumptions and expectations about an entire gender based on unknowable thoughts.

Think back to what Judeo-Christian morals say about men who look at a women with lust. It’s such an important issue that Jesus himself says outright that just thinking sexy thoughts about a woman is a major transgression. He didn’t say anything about homosexuality, but he made it clear that contemplating lust is as bad as acting on it.

Many religious traditions and cultures place a similar emphasis on the subject. It’s why traditions in Islam and ancient China advocate separating men from women. If they’re in close proximity, they may look at one another. If they look at one another, then they may think lustful thoughts.

This isn’t just cultures being sexually uptight or overly patriarchal. This emphasis on scorning men’s thoughts makes logistical sense when you look at the intent. From perspective of a functional society, it has to emphasize thought over actions because just judging a man for his actions is insufficient when you extrapolate the consequences.

Say a man sexually assaults a woman. The community rightfully convicts him and punishes him as harshly as possible. No matter how harsh or cruel, though, it doesn’t undo the harm he inflicted on the woman. She is still traumatized. She might even be permanently injured. As I noted before, when a female body suffers, it puts the future of the community in danger.

As a result, we have no choice but to attack the thoughts of the man that preceded his assault. The only way to prevent damage to the female body is to prevent those violent thoughts from occurring in the first place. Unfortunately, we can’t read thoughts. We don’t know what a man is or isn’t thinking when he commits an egregious crime. As a result, we’re left with expectations and assumptions.

That’s where we get flawed concepts like toxic masculinity, the male gaze, and mansplaining. That’s also why there’s a greater emphasis on assuming the guilt of men and believing the claims of women. Attacking their thoughts is the only sure-fire way to prevent them from turning into actions that would harm women and their bodies.

Please note that I emphasized the harm to the female bodies with respect to men’s actions. That’s not an accident. The assumptions are the same today as they were in ancient times when protecting the reproductive function of women wasn’t just a cultural tradition. It was a matter of survival. Any effort that could reduce the chances of a female body being harmed had merit. From there, natural selection does the rest.

With this dynamic in mind, look at some of the relevant cultural issues going on today. Even if the connections aren’t direct, the influencing factors are there. Nearly every one of them come back to controlling women’s bodies and policing men’s thoughts.

At the heart of the abortion debate is controlling women’s bodies.

At the heart of the debate over depictions of women in media is policing men’s thoughts.

At the heart of the anti-harassment movement, the anti-pornography movement, and the opposition to prostitution is the control of female bodies and the policing of men’s thoughts.

It’s rarely stated outright. However, that is what many issues comes back to. Often times, the people involved won’t use words like “control” or “policing.” They’ll claim they’re protecting women’s bodies and enlightening men’s thoughts. That may be the intention, but there are only so many ways anyone can go about pursuing such recourse.

To protect anything, you have to be able to control it to some degree. We can’t protect people, pets, or possessions without some kind of containment. The same goes for reforming someone’s attitudes. It’s necessary to police undesired thoughts to promote the thoughts you want.

In both cases, the outcome is the same. It’s both impossible and untenable to completely control women’s bodies. That requires a level of subjugation that even the most brazen misogynist cannot stomach or maintain. It’s just as impractical to police men’s thoughts. We can never know for sure what someone else is thinking. We’re left to assume and that’s usually the first step towards expecting the worst.

Despite the efforts of government, culture, tradition, and organized religion, nobody has come close to controlling women’s bodies and policing men’s thoughts to any sustainable extent. Men will still think sexy thoughts, a small part of which will precede a serious crime. Women will still put themselves at risk to be free, have fun, and enjoy their bodies on their own terms.

Even if 99 percent of what men think results in no crimes and 99 percent of what women did with their bodies resulted in no negative effects, we’ll still obsess over that one percent of the time when something goes horribly wrong. That obsession will continue to fuel the most radical parts of feminism and the most vocal parts of men’s rights activists.

For now, there’s no way to bridge the gap. That may change as a result of major social and technological trends, but this is the current situation. Again, I don’t claim this idea of controlling women’s bodies and policing men’s thoughts is the definitive catalyst for all gender-driven conflicts. This is just an idea I wanted to share in hopes of providing perspective.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues