Let’s start with Penny Arcade, even though the strip itself is not so much at issue as the creators (my friends Mike & Jerry), the org, and the culture surrounding it. The comic, originating seed and continuing bedrock of the whole endeavor, is a gag strip about gaming and the gaming industry. It often depicts extreme violence and employs shocking obscenity in service of its jokes. It is sometimes very dark, as is a lot of my favorite humor, and it is almost always about things that you couldn’t hope to care about if you’re not a gamer. By subject, by content, and by stylistic approach, the strip precludes the kind of general readership that a newspaper comic might reach. But to PA’s adherents, it is indispensable. You probably know all this already, but I feel like it bears laying out, just as a reminder that comedy is subjectively consumed and appreciated, and that certain common and valuable comedy tools (violence, obscenity, and gallows humor) will produce a strong negative reaction in a lot of perfectly reasonable folks. That’s fine. Being perfectly reasonable, those folks distinguish between material that they find extremely distasteful and material that is actually injuring innocents. They seek out comedy that they find funny and/or acceptable, and they leave Penny Arcade, usually, to the rest of us. I haven’t seen anyone suggest that Penny Arcade must be censored or denied to its readership. I HAVE seen full-throated critiques of certain PA strips. And I HAVE seen PA fans cry censorship over criticism of the strip’s content. Those particular fans do not understand what censorship is, and they should probably never use the word casually. Criticizing things that we find distasteful is part (a vital part!) of discourse in an open society. If someone sees a piece of art that I love and finds it to be in gross violation of decency, taste, caring, or human dignity, it is not merely that person’s right to yell about how shitty they think it is – it’s sort of their obligation. They want our shared culture to be better, and they’re complaining toward that end. I can answer back about how I find their position to be unsubstantiated, misguided, misinformed, unfair, or otherwise lacking. Or I can accept that their perspective is valid while I don’t share it. Or I can ignore their perspective. Or I can ignore their perspective, feel attacked, and insist that they go fuck themselves for daring to criticize whatever it is that I’ve wrapped my identity up in consuming – in this case, the comic strip Penny Arcade. That last option is the worst one, if you’re ranking them.
Let’s move on to dickwolves. This ( http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/8/11/ ) is a strip that some PA readers (and many more non-readers who discovered it through the ensuing shitstorm(s)) found upsetting because of its casual invocation of rape. From my perspective, the comedy of this strip is sophisticated and hilarious. It presents a critique of game designers, their hamfisted incorporation of heroism as a narrative excuse for stat grinding, and the amorality of the gamer who becomes complicit in this shoddy, effectively immoral narrative while pursuing feats of supposed justice. The rape victim in the strip is not the punching bag of the joke. The joke functions instead at the expense of the scenario designer, the hack game writer, and the player who has been perversely incentivized to not give a shit about the moral implications of the quest. It is, in so far as it addresses the issue, an anti-rape joke. From my perspective, it seems to pass the demanding tests suggested by Lindy West and Patton Oswalt in their fantastic posts about when rape can and cannot function effectively in humor ( http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke and point number three here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/06/patton_oswalt_on_rape_jokes_joke_stealing_and_heckling.single.html ). I am defending my perspective on the original strip because I think the joke itself – how it was constructed and what it means – does matter. But let’s remember that my perspective on this joke is not a) that of a rape survivor nor b) that of someone who, because of gender, stands at least a 1 in 6 chance of getting raped before I die. It is my not-at-all-unique privilege to walk the dark alleys of the real world without that kind of fear. And it is my also-not-particularly-rarified privilege to enjoy this joke without it triggering a painful memory of violation and trauma. So many of us share this privilege, and the casual exercise of the privilege is so normalized, that it is a simple thing for us to forget that not everyone has this same access to the hilarity explored in the dickwolves strip.
Ironically, it’s always in the front of our minds that not everyone can access the hilarity in a PA strip. That’s part of the strip’s appeal to us – that most people don’t know/care enough about gaming to parse a joke like this in the first place, that our understanding is specialized and our enjoyment is somewhat exclusive. Thus the PA readership’s vocal defense of the strip: you are offended because you Just Don’t Get It. And there’s something to that. You’d need a few dozen hours of NPC-provided bullshit-collection side quests under your belt to grasp how all the parts of this joke are fitting together, and so for the vast majority of folks in the world, it is pretty easy to misunderstand this particular strip’s focus, to mistake it for the sort of “haw haw, you got raped” comedy that the worst, hackiest, most bro-ish comedians continue to trot out in lieu of genuine edginess. Surely some of the initial criticism of the strip came from that place of misunderstanding. And surely some of Mike’s initial pushback stemmed from his own sense of personal affront at being grouped with that kind of bottom-quality comedy. But just as surely, there were readers who understood the joke thoroughly and still felt discomfort – or much worse. It is a complicated thing to grasp without direct experience, that for those rape survivors who still suffer PTSD, just reading the second panel might produce a genuine injury. Is it the strip’s responsibility to be safe art for everyone? Absolutely not. Is it irresponsible to reference sexual violence without a trigger warning? Not usually, outside of known safe spaces. And that warning would seem redundant on PA, with its well-established history of jokes about pedophilia, AIDS, robots who rape breakfast fruit, etc. So, is it our responsibility as fans of the strip (and as reasonable, thinking, feeling human beings) to recognize the potential for suffering in others, and to treat that potential with all appropriate respect? Of course it is, even when the exact amount of respect deemed appropriate is a continuing negotiation. And it is, definitely, our responsibility to recognize that some of those others are our fellow fans, that their voicing of concern or apprehension is not an attempt to squelch the boundary-free comic sensibilities of Jerry and Mike. It’s just people saying “Hey, not everyone can handle it when you drop the R word like that. The exculpatory context doesn’t really help. You don’t have to change the way you write jokes, but you should seek and attain full understanding of the comedic tools you use in your craft.”
Or anyway, that’s how I like to think the critique of the strip began. It quickly escalated into a genuine internet garbage explosion. Some people from the Social Justice left decided that PA is penned by monsters. Some defenders of the comic told critics that they should be raped, murdered, and so on. The former is ungenerous and incorrect. The latter is appalling and indefensible.
I was embarrassed by both. I want all the kids who love the same strip I do – the strip that is so often brilliantly wrought by my buddies Mike & Jerry – to behave like decent folks instead of like reprehensible little shits. And I want every member of the far left – a membership in which I proudly include myself – to recognize that a straight dude who hasn’t learned that rape culture is a real thing is NOT in every instance an irredeemable trashbag who rejoices in oppression and the denial of victims’ suffering. Well, I don’t always get what I want. And while voices that I consider civil and sensible were present on both sides of the initial conflict, they were drowned out immediately – at least on social media – by the least constructive representatives of each viewpoint. Annoying, embarrassing, disappointing. It’s internet, Marge. It’s gonna be that way.
But then it got worse. And I hate to say it, but a series of unforced errors on Mike & Jerry’s part were what turned it from a spitting contest between blindfolded third parties into a sort of a grudge match between the strip’s creators and feminism at large. First was the response strip ( http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/08/13 ) and attendant news posts ( http://www.penny-arcade.com/2010/08/13 ) in which a hugely problematic viewpoint emerged: Mike & Jerry had decided that all (as opposed to a few) concerns about the Dickwolves strip were sourced from fucking idiots. When you have any non-zero number of fucking idiots yelling at you on internet, it is tempting (and sometimes important) to take a couple of intellectual shortcuts in defending your own emotional stability. In this case, Mike & Jerry had taken a discussion that I see as both valid and valuable (whether or not rape had been referenced in the Dickwolves strip in a way that perpetuates rape culture) and replaced it with their chosen discussion: whether or not the two of them literally, consciously believe that committing rape is okay. I see the answer in both cases as no, but the revised case is such a facile question that it warrants mockery and out-of-hand dismissal, while the first case is challenging, complex, and requires a large dollop of good faith from both sides in order to get anywhere. It didn’t help that no such good faith was afforded. Even the best-reasoned progressive essays about the strip seemed to start from the assumption that humorists cannot incorporate sexual assault into jokes while being conscious, caring human beings. And obviously Mike & Jerry had chosen to ignore the challenging aspects of the critique in order to kick down a straw man.
And then it got A LOT worse. A tiny (I hope) but very vocal part of the fanbase believed in that straw man wholeheartedly. Now it was open season for angry children to rail against the critics. They had the perfect alibi, too: they fucking hated you, but not because you’re women, not because you’re feminists or whatever, just because you’re IDIOTS like PA said, just because you’re so bad at Getting A Joke that you want to take away jokes from everyone. We hate you because you hate jokes and jokes are the only thing we love. (Well, apparently we also love telling women how much we hate them, also video games, DUH.) This foul and ugly subset of the PA fan population – the ones who gleefully wielded misogyny as a cudgel throughout the debate – was, I think, the segment that rushed to purchase the Team Dickwolves shirts in the several months that they were sold.
Those shirts. Oh, man. Those shirts were not a good affirmation of the righteousness of those who stood in defense of the original joke. They were more of a huge middle finger to the idea of sensitivity itself. The kids championing them seemed eager to offend any women – dubbed “whiners” – who might happen to see them in person. Some of them plotted to form “flashmobs” of shirt-wearers at PAX, and the idea that their ideological opponents would see the shirts as threatening made the whole endeavor all the more uproarious to them. In this context, it becomes one seriously fucking offensive shirt, offensive enough to make other PAX attendees feel unsafe. So of course it had to go. I wish my friends had figured that out before ever printing the god damn things. I wonder if they thought the shirts wouldn’t be so offensive because they were intended defensively instead.
I know about feeling defensive, and about prizing my hard-won insensitivities. I was not always the fabulous, universally adored paunchy 40-year-old nerd rapper you see before you. Flash back to maybe 1986, a middle school hallway. People tell me that I suck pretty often. Everyone who tells me that I suck, they’re real assholes about it. They want to make sure I know it, and internalize it, so that it defeats me. I have determined that everyone who tells me that I suck is the enemy. I am going to clench my fists and purse my lips and find a way to not let them win. I am going to never admit that I suck, even when my enemies hold me in a headlock and tell me which words I have to recite (little monologues about how shitty and powerless I am) in order to be freed. I don’t care how much it hurts for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week. I don’t care that they make me say it anyway – in my heart I don’t say it. In my heart I scheme, while the words come out, to grow up into someone who is immune from headlocks. To somehow never have to take this kind of shit again.
You know the really pathetic thing about being a nerd? Some shred of THAT EXACT defensiveness is your automatic response to any perceived attack, for years and years after school is over. It’s probably taken me most of my adult life to let go of those feelings. They still flare up when what I perceive as a personal attack seems entirely without justice. I wonder if, when the dickwolves shirts were conceived, those same feelings were flaring up in Mike (I see him a few times a year, at PAX, though I have never discussed dickwolves with him at all, so most of readings of his motivations are just empathy and guesswork). This weekend onstage, he said he regretted pulling those shirts from the store three years ago. I wonder if he’s still holding onto that regret for so simple a reason: because the original joke was fantastic and I know what’s in my heart as regards compassion + not assaulting people + HUMAN DECENCY, and fuck you for telling me how much I suck. And I’m going to keep saying fuck you no matter what, because nobody can put me in a headlock any more, and to back down – ever – might suggest to my enemies that I was wrong about the joke in the first place.
That’s why I think the original joke matters, even though most of the hundreds of people who’ve weighed in on dickwolves point not to the dickwolves strip but to Mike’s twitter snark, his comment thread arguments, the reaction strip, the news posts, and UGHHHH those fucking shirts. Mike, if you’re reading this, I’m begging you: turn your back on those shirts. Do it in public and do it because you mean it, not because you have a responsibility to the company. Take a long look at the haters who love the shirts, and see that they are pushing the hate outward, not shielding reflexively from an incoming barrage. Take a look at the fiercest, most bared-muzzle version of feminism you can dig up, and realize that even when it calls you an asshole, feminism is not the enemy, that it is not putting anyone in a headlock, that it in fact exists to RESCUE half the world’s population from a headlock suffered under lo these several millennia. Mike, you won the Good Art Debate before the strip even posted. The joke in the strip is not rape culture. The mob of guys who wear a Dickwolves shirt as an emblem of How Much They Think Sensitivity To Rape Jokes Is Unwarranted – that’s rape culture. And it’s gross. Realize why it’s gross, and help make it stop.
I’m not going to keep pleading with Mike. This isn’t a letter to him. It’s more of an essay about him and why I still love him and consider him a friend. And why I would not abandon PAX. But let’s move on to the transphobia!
When this popped up a couple months ago, it was seized upon by a swath of internet progressives for whom it is way too late to ever give Mike the benefit of the doubt. I get that urge, to deny the benefit of the doubt. Like I said, I’ve still got leftover sixth-grade reactionary leanings that make me want to identify and proclaim my enemies. And in the modern adult world, the genuine enemies of progress, compassion, and social justice are not fucking around with how much they want to destroy queer and trans identities – they are trying to do it out loud, in public, through discriminatory legislation and hateful social policy. It takes a lot of breath and some pretty big megaphones for us to shout them down. It is an ongoing battle with no end in sight.
But Mike is, very clearly, no enemy of trans folks. He demonstrated that he – like most people – isn’t well versed in Trans Issues 101. Then he was a dick about it on Twitter. Then he figured out that he needed to learn a little more about some people who are different than he is, and then that’s exactly what he did. He apologized sincerely, and made amends as best he knew how. I think this is a good summary of how he came to the right place on this one, and why progressives should admit that he did, instead of chiseling transphobia onto the stone tablet of his sins: http://www.gamingexcellence.com/features/a-possibly-surprising-defense-of-mike-krahulik
I want him to come to the right place on dickwolves shirts, too. I don’t know if he will. But I know it’s too late to keep not talking about it.
Anyway, let’s talk about PAX. I realized I needed to post something like this when I started seeing posts this week in which people were referring to the convention as a “toxic environment.” If I believed that too, I’d have to stop being a part of it. And watching that video of the Mike & Jerry interview panel, where Mike voices his regret in pulling the shirts, where part of the crowd cheers the regret of that decision – I had a horrifying feeling of “oh shit, that IS toxic.” I don’t know what percent of the crowd cheered it but it was totally audible. I don’t know what percent of that percent was the misogynist asshole contingent and what was simply rote supportive cheering from fans who haven’t actually examined the issue in question. But that statement from Mike, along with that cheering, was a toxic moment. Were I rape survivor in that crowd, I imagine that my skin would crawl at hearing the joined voices of those cheering men. I imagine I’d never come anywhere near a PAX again.
But PAX is a lot bigger than that moment, and I believe the overall toxicity assessment is wrong. I’ve performed at fifteen of these things now, over the course of ten years, and at every single one of them I’ve met kids, and men and women, who have That Look in their eyes. It’s that look of wonderment and gladness that they’ve finally found a community and an environment that feels accepting and secure. They tell me about feeling that way. Their identities are validated, finally and en masse. If I – or if progressive artists, devs, and gamers generally – cut and run from PAX over Mike’s stubborn resistance to the learning curve on the rape culture issue – that’s when the convention will become a safe place only for the shitty, spiteful children who understand that Team Dickwolves means FUCK YOU and want to wear it anyway. I can’t stand to see that happen. So I’ll stick around, if Mike & Jerry will keep having me. And I hope every one of the hundreds of thousands of other people who go to the three PAXes, who feel like they are a part of it, who feel like they share it with everyone else, who feel like it really is OURS, will not abandon it to the worst segment of our massive community. Let’s fix this thing. It is absolutely worth saving.