Trigger warning: the following post discusses arguments re: sexism and rape jokes in the sf/fantasy and comedy communities that eventually resulted in the online threat of rape.
For someone who’s as big of a fan of science fiction/fantasy and standup comedy as I am, this past week has been… not eye-opening, really. That would indicate that I wasn’t aware of something’s existence. I guess it’s more like seeing a Band-Aid being ripped off an open sore so you can get a good look at the pus and putrescence hiding just under that adhesive strip. It’s been ugly.
In short, women in both sf/fantasy and comedy get short shrift, and this has been an ongoing concern for lord knows how long…as long as both media have existed? But things lately have been bubbling to the surface. From harassment and assault at conventions to the whole bullshit “fake geek girl” phenomenon; from Adam Carolla and Jerry Lewis insisting that women are genetically incapable of being funny to Daniel Tosh saying in re: a heckler who criticized a comment about rape, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?” Guys who see women as increasingly encroaching on what they’ve seen as their own private territory are becoming, well, increasingly territorial.
Both boiling topics seemed to bubble over the edges this past week, as scandal erupted over the Science Fiction Writers of America’s quarterly bulletin. This, like the other topics mentioned above, has been percolating for a while now. See, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg spent two issues’s worth of their “Dialogues” column talking about “lady writers” and “lady editors” (because “lady” is a totally neutral term, you guys!) in terms that tended to drift into how the “ladies” looked in bathing suits, or how they were “knockouts” when they were younger. The second issue came housed in a cover depicting a chain mail bikini-clad warrior woman with what Eaglebauer from Rock ‘N’ Roll High School would call a “nice set of pom-poms.” (NB: I have nothing against cheesecake or beefcake artwork, in and of itself, but it’s the context of the cover accompanying the comments contained therein that I find troubling.) The comments themselves may have been rather mild (worthy of complaint, but mild compared to what would come), but the response to criticism online was telling. Online criticism was routinely slammed by Resnick/Malzberg supporters as soon as it popped up. After a considerable amount of argument over the cover art and the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues, the following issue came out with a column titled “Being Barbie,” in which author C.J. Henderson stated that Barbie’s staying power was directly “because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”
After even more online debate, the following issue made up for some lost ground by printing Jim C. Hines’ essay “Cover Art and the Radical Notion that Women Are People,” but you know what they say: one step forward, two steps back. Because that issue also contained a rebuttal by Resnick and Malzberg about the recent flap in which they called those offended “SFWA liberal fascists,” complained about “thought control” and “censorship” and “anonymous critics” (even though most were not anonymous) and compared those who complained to Stalin, Mao and Hitler.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, discussion about the appropriateness of certain rape jokes has turned into something bigger than just the online reaction to Tosh’s idiotic comment. It started with Salon writer Molly Knefel’s article “The Rape Joke Double-Standard” (actually, it probably started with Sady Doyle’s earlier criticism of comedian Sam Morril’s act, but this is where a lot of people jumped in and things started heating up), in which she—among other things—calls out Patton Oswalt for defending Tosh while also decrying the violence that occurred during the Boston Marathon. For not treating the perpetuation of rape culture (which Tosh’s remark clearly does) with an equal measure of gravity. Now, to be sure, this is entering into a “let’s criticize an absence rather than a presence” territory, and it’s hard to criticize someone for an unspoken thought. But the furor that Knefel’s article created (including Oswalt’s accusation that it existed only as link bait) itself caused other developments.
No stranger to the “rape joke” brouhaha, having written probably the definitive take on it, Lindy West responded to the Knefel/Oswalt kerfuffle with a piece in Jezebel titled “An Open Letter to White Male Comedians” in which she expertly details how some comics, in coming from a position of privilege, can tend to not see just how damaging a really shitty rape joke can be to a woman in general, and in particular to a survivor of rape. Nowhere in any piece she’s done on the subject has she said that rape as a subject should be off-limits. She has consistently argued that instead, comics should constantly strive to do better when it comes to handling topics like rape. A hacky comment like Tosh’s is lazy and—despite him saying that he was joking—not funny. It could be the textbook definition of a bad joke. You could look that shit up in Webster’s, and the definition of “bad joke” would be “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?” In response, Patton praised West’s article, and it seemed like that was smoothed over. At least I hadn’t seen the ugliness that had been festering online ooze to the surface.
But then, she appeared alongside comic Jim Norton on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to debate the topic.
Right around the same time, a number of writers and bloggers began responding to the SFWA Bulletins. There have been a lot of really incredible pieces written on the subject. For a great roundup, see this post by the amazing and aforementioned Jim C. Hines, but definitely check out E. Catherine Tobler’s “Dear SFWA,” Kameron Hurley’s “Dear SFWA Writers: Let’s Chat About Censorship & Bullying” Karina Cooper’s “Damned If You Do(n’t)” and Foz Meadows’ beautifully brutal takedown, “Old Men Yelling at Clouds: SFWA Sexism.”
And the response to both events was, let’s say, exactly as bad as you’d fear.
Because, you see, the seemingly correct response to any woman’s accusation that a particular group of people are hostile to women is to react to that woman with extreme hostility and prove her point.
For one example, writer Ann Aguirre, in light of the SFWA events, wrote a post detailing her experiences with sexism in the SF/Fantasy community (in particular on convention panels), and was immediately deluged with insanely profane emails essentially telling her to STFU because she’s just a woman (or, better yet, just a “cunt”). Let’s dispense with the frequently-used phrase “words don’t matter” here. Because they damn well do. It’s shit-talking like this that makes it seem perfectly okay for, say, Harlan Ellison to grope Connie Willis’ breast during a fucking presentation at the 2006 Hugo Awards and then proceed to get angry at Willis for not immediately springing to his defense after he sort-of-apologized three days later (and then only after reading that there were people who thought it wasn’t the mind-blowing hoot that he seemed to think it was at the time). Because boys will be boys, children, and girls should be like Barbie and maintain a quiet dignity about it all.
And the reaction to Lindy West’s appearance on Totally Biased was even worse. Let’s skip over the fact that her debate with Jim Norton ended with him saying that the two of them should make out in front of the studio audience (because, hey, why should she have any say in the matter?), and go straight to the comments. Actually, they’re too fucking vile to list here. Just visit her writeup on it at Jezebel and, if you’re brave, watch the video of her reading them aloud.
It’s not just creepy, it’s shit-your-pants terrifying. Sentiments ranging from (in so many words) “How dare you complain about inappropriate rape jokes? You must be raped at the earliest convenience,” to “You’re just complaining because you’re too fat to be raped.” Who are these people???
(Let me say that Jim Norton’s participation has been relatively and consistently even-handed and level-headed. Though I disagree with many of his points, including his attempt to steal the last word in the debate by challenging Lindy to make out with him, he has been reasonable and has called out those threatening her on Twitter and elsewhere.)
This is what happens when a group of people in a position of power and privilege see that position shrinking in importance. These people see rising egalitarianism as a threat and that they no longer have an exclusive hold on a territory. And it frightens them. It’s like Republicans’ efforts to make voting as difficult as possible for minorities during the last election: “silence the creeping minority menace, so that we can continue to hold onto our rightful place.” Which is something that has an unfortunate parallel with the SFWA: this year’s presidential election included as a candidate Theodore “Vox Day” Beale, who wanted women disqualified from voting (in any election), and who received 46 votes. Cast by actual, thinking human beings, if you can believe that. And the kind of responses I’ve mentioned received by Ann Aguirre and Lindy West are meant to do just that: marginalize and silence the voices and perspectives of those who dare take offense at and criticize what is being said.
And this is why I hate fandom. I love fans, but I hate fandom. Because where you have fandom, you have these dickheads (and they are, for some stupid reason, pretty much exclusively men, so “dickheads” is the correct anatomical term) who think that the world is their goddamned oyster and woe be it to anyone without the Staff of Life who wants to share in their clambake. You wind up with conventions where female writers are made to feel unwelcome and that their contributions are lesser simply because they lack penises (and anyway, their stuff can’t be real sci-fi or fantasy, because they’re going to introduce icky stuff like “feelings” where none need be, because chicks, amirite?). You wind up with fans of comics who think the best way to live up to their idols’ “just tellin’ it like it is!” rep is to lash out at people who are trying to move the conversation forward and insult them, threaten them with rape and harass them until they shut up and leave comedy to daddy.
Seriously, this is as good as these assholes can do? To react to the interference of those branded with the curse of the Double-X with rape and death threats? To complain that women are trying to silence men, and that the correct response is to try and silence the women who have a complaint? I mean, this is either the textbook definition of irony or insanity, and is probably both.
Seriously, what the holy hell is wrong with people?
The most relevant quotes on either topic are from the pieces I linked above by E. Catherine Tobler and Lindy West. And they both say the same thing:
“You can talk about controversial subjects—in fact, you should talk about controversial subjects, because comedy is an incredibly powerful subversive tool—but if you want people like me to stop bitching at you (a dream we share, I promise!), you need to stop using your comedy to make those things worse. You don’t have to make things better—you are under no obligation to save the world—but if you are actively making things worse for people, especially when you are not a member of the group whose existence you are worsening, don’t be surprised when people complain.” – Lindy West
“In all the complaints that were voiced, there was never a call for censorship. There was never a call for suppression. There was a call for respect.” – E. Catherine Tobler
Because that’s what this is all about. People demanding respect and getting bullied for their trouble. And when you’re talking about two groups of people who likely are no strangers to being bullied themselves—comics and sci-fi/fantasy peeps—that’s a damn shame.
It’s the kind of thing that makes a self-proclaimed geek and fanboy ashamed to own a dick.