I’d like to share with you a comic strip I saw on Facebook today. It’s worth a chuckle, and I suspect more than a few gamers will relate to it:
We all know analyzing humor supposedly ruins it, right? If that bothers you, I’d suggest you go read something else, because I’m about to spend a thousand words doing just that. More accurately, I’m going to analyze larger issues that the comic unintentionally brings up. If that bothers you– if you’d rather have your quick chuckle and move on, because Internet– you’re welcome to do so. But I hope you’re willing to stick around, because even the most innocuous comic, or story, or TV commercial, can be the springboard for some more interesting thoughts.
Still with me? Good.
On the Facebook thread, someone commented that the comic portrayed tired stereotypes– men with poor impulse control, women mothering their husbands– and expressed a desire that artists do more to quash that particular gender stereotype.
Hmm, my brain went, it’s just a comic, but y’know, she’s not wrong. Even if it sometimes reflects real life, it’s still a stereotype on display. Still, it’s just a comic. Worth a chuckle, a moment’s reflection, and time to move on, right?
I was prepared to let it go at that, get on with my day, when I noticed a reply from the person who posted the comic: “That’s odd, [name redacted]. I didn’t ‘see’ the gender aspect when I read this. Perhaps you’re reading too much into a joke.”
Oh, snap, my brain went. Oh, now it’s on. Because it’s one thing to disagree with someone, and it’s another to dismiss their argument out of hand.
You’re reading too much into it.
It’s just a joke. Lighten up.
Why are people such crybabies? Get a sense of humor.
Any of these responses (all of which were in the thread, at various points) will get my hackles up faster than a shitty call in a Seahawks playoff game. Every single one is just a way of saying, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t want you to have it either. Go away. Occasionally (as in this case) there’s the bonus, not-subtle implication that the person who brought it up is really the sexist one, for pointing it out. Which is, of course, bullshit.
I’ve blogged about this before, but just because you personally didn’t find something offensive, doesn’t mean that other people are wrong for doing so. In this particular case, the commenter hadn’t even taken offense, just pointed out an old stereotype! The reactions I read were far more disturbing than the initial comic. Which is usually how these debates go, and how an innocuous comment ends up turning the Internet upside down.
It’s just a joke offers the suggestion that humor is not worthy of such discussion– that funny things should get a free pass, because hey, it’s just a joke, right? But that’s insulting in its own way– it belittles the incredible power that humor and satire have in this world. It’s just a joke, right? Tell that to Jonathan Swift. Tell that to critics (and fans) of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. It’s just a joke!
Bullshit. Jokes are powerful things, even when they’re not trying to be. As someone who’s written his fair share of humor stories, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But what about this particular comic? It’s just a cheap Facebook laugh, right? Well, yes.. but maybe not, if you view it in the larger context of our culture.
You see, the artist’s intent was just to tell a lighthearted joke, so most other aspects of the comic got set to “default.” The default assumption in our society is that males are more obsessed with games (and more “childish”) than women are, so that’s what got portrayed.
We’re focusing on the “women in gaming” default, because that’s what the comic is about– but it’s the not the only way the comic portrays the standard cultural default. The woman herself is pretty and blonde, the Star Wars obsessed kid is a boy, and the family’s skin color is white. Basically, everything about this comic that isn’t directly relevant to the punchline is just society’s default assumption.
Switching everything to “default,” when it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to do (or the punchline you’re trying to tell), isn’t necessarily a problem. But a lot of people are sensitive to this particular default right now because it’s one that many people are trying to change. Even if it wasn’t the person’s intent, it’s a default that still subtly encourages the dismissal of women gamers, because it’s not “the norm.” Does the comic by itself do that? No. Is this comic strip one tiny, infinitesimal part of a larger culture that does? Yes.
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of those defaults when viewed on their own– they became the defaults partly because they’re very common in our society, but they also became the defaults because the vast, vast, vast majority of people producing media and pulling the strings of the industry were white men with certain norms and expectations. What was their default became our default. Even in media that isn’t intentionally sexist, those defaults pervade.
Another example where this dynamic is even more obvious is TV and print advertising. It’s the default to have women cleaning the house and taking care of the kids, while men drive trucks, play games and drink beer. When an ad breaks the default, it usually makes the news– for example, the recent Cheerios ad that portrayed an interracial couple, or the Coca-Cola ad that sung America the Beautiful in languages besides English. Those things don’t, on the face of it, seem all that controversial (especially the interracial couple… this is 2014!). Yet it was newsworthy, because it wasn’t the norm.
For an example of a comic strip that avoids defaults well, I’d point to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which portrays a wide variety of relationships and people, even when “the default” would be good enough to get the punchline across.
As a writer, I’m not saying you have to studiously avoid the default– I’m saying make your choices deliberately. Don’t create your characters in default mode just because you’re lazy. You’re taught to avoid cliches in your sentences, so why use cliches in your characters and their motivations?
And for those of you who think that this is a lot to pull from a single comic– well, yes it is. But it seems to me a discussion worth having, or at least, a discussion worth not shutting down.
Also, for the record, the comic itself is from direman.com (Yay for attribution– but that’s a whole other blog post.) It’s a long-running comic with a variety of characters, and seems to do a pretty good job of representing women in gaming overall, and does a fair amount of satirizing stereotypes. So perhaps it’s unfair to take this comic out of context– but that is how it was posted on Facebook (not by the artists, I should add). And I think it’s worse to try to shut down a worthy discussion by belittling people who bring it up, or dismissing their larger concerns with it’s just a joke.
Let’s be clear. It’s not just a joke. It’s never just a joke, even if that’s how it was intended. Context –cultural and personal– is everything. And just because someone does see a slight that you’re privileged enough to be able to ignore– please, try to put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Maybe a day will come when we don’t have to talk about defaults, and when stereotypes aren’t so overused as to be worth noting– but until that day comes, don’t be surprised if you see these discussions crop up in places where you might not expect them to. When that happens, remember Wheaton’s Law.
And if you’re a content creator– be it a writer, artist, video producer, or otherwise– remember, don’t be lazy and pick the default, just because you can.