Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

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 (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.

6 thoughts on “Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

  1. Let me see if I understand this correctly:

    Someone offers the *opinion* that this comic may portray a “tired stereotype” and you thought “rock on!” Then someone responded with the a counter that they did not see the same thing and offered their own *opinion* that too much was being read into it and you’re “oh, it’s on!!!”

    Aren’t you being just as dismissive of the second opinion as you’re accusing in your target?

    Now, let me offer a different perspective, here, and a reason why your quest for equality can be a dangerous one. One that should be handled with responsibility and not flaunted every time you see something that just *happens* to fit a stereotype.

    I find this comic funny because it would probably occur in a very similar manner in my own house. I tend to be a bit impulsive, my wife the more practical… in most cases (although the opposite is often true as well). But with the initial response qualifying this as a “tired stereotype” reflects an attitude toward people like my wife that I find FAR more disturbing than someone suggesting that, perhaps, someone is looking too closely at a comic. The comic made no intentional message regarding the state of women in society. The person calling it a “tired stereotype” did.

    To put a little more history to my point, my wife is a stay at home mom. She chose that life. She worked in an office for years and found the life unsatisfactory. She made the choice to stay home and raise our kids and she is far happier. In contrast to this, she chose not to take my last name when we got married because she felt it meant losing her identity. Sometimes she fits a stereotype, sometimes she doesn’t. And she now gets shit from feminists *and* misogynists. She is criticized by feminists because she not working. She is also criticized by misogynists because she did not change her name.

    Point is, my wife is not a stereotype and she is often more hurt by people implying that she should fit into the anti-stereotype roles than she is by people suggesting she should fit with the stereotypes. The latter she can simply dismiss as being assholes. But, in the former case, she is made to feel like she somehow abandons the cause of being an individual and some misguided perception that every woman must champion the stereotype by being *intentionally* contrary.

    Isn’t the woman’s movement about choice? Taking the “default” approach to fighting for women’s rights by taking the opposite position to traditionalism – as this initial responder did – is as much a crime against that freedom of choice because it feeds into a stereotype that all women must want to be *not* like the woman portrayed in public media if they want to be a “correct” woman. When stating “that’s the wrong way to portray women,” you’re basically pulling the pin on a big shame grenade and tossing it into a room full of women who may ACTUALLY be that way with no reason to be ashamed of who they are. Sometimes people just happen to fit a stereotype. Should they be told that the way they are is wrong?

    Now, since I know what you were campaigning against what was a perceived dismissive response more than any act of actual disagreement, let me offer the perspective that, if it had been me that read a response describing the comic portrayed as a “tired stereotype,” I would have been PISSED because it is dismissive of my wife’s behavior and, in fact, calling *her* a tired stereotype when she is simply living a life focused on taking care of her family… as a matter of choice.

    I would suggest an *opinion* that the comic was being examined too closely may have been a far more tempered reaction than the initial responder might have received. And criticizing someone’s opinion regarding the opinion of someone else… seems to be portray a certain double standard. As a rather prolific blogger and logical thinker (as it would seem by your articles), I would think you’d be more open to opinions on BOTH sides rather than siding with the default of being “PC” no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.

    Note: For the record, I find any responses of name calling (“crybaby” for example) to be inappropriate. I am not defending that sort of interaction.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think I pretty well explained in my post why I thought the poster’s opinion (and ones stated further down the thread, some also by the poster) was indefensible– it’s not so much an opinion as a dismissal, with bonus you’re-the-sexist dog whistle, and very similar statements are too often used to silence people. I can dismiss dismissive opinions without being hypocritical– it’s like not tolerating intolerance.

    As for the rest of your argument, keep in mind we’re talking about stereotypes as portrayed in the media (comics, movies, stories, etc). Another example I would offer is the Asian Nerd– it’s a common stereotype that Asians are superhumanly good at Math, Science, etc. If a creator puts an Asian Nerd in the story, and moreover, that’s the whole definition of their character– then they’ve been lazy. They’ve created a trope rather than a person.

    The Mothering Wife, and the Immature Husband, are also stereotypes. Of course they do exist in real life, but they’re also so common on TV, in films, etc. that they’re pretty much the default. And thus lazy storytellers will use them.

    Of course, in real life, there are Asian nerds. Should they feel bad? Hell no. Because they’re real people. People aren’t just stereotypes, as you pointed out in regards to your wife– real people are too complicated to be defined by a stereotype. But lazy storytellers will do exactly that, and this is bad.

    It doesn’t do Asians any good that they’re continually portrayed as nerds in media. It doesn’t do women any good that they’re continually portrayed as long-suffering mother figures, non-gamers, etc. And it doesn’t do men any good that they’re continually portrayed as immature doofuses. Good stories create well-rounded people who aren’t defined by stereotypes.

    I want to reach a point where women can feel free to play games, or have a tech career, and not be looked at sideways because they’re “weird.” I want to reach a point where either a Mom and Dad can choose to stay home and raise their kid, and they won’t have to feel weird or embarrassed by being different. (And for the record, I think it’s horrible that your wife gets flack from feminists for choosing to be a stay-at-home Mom.) I want to reach a point where people can make choices based on their own life circumstances and desires, as opposed to what’s typical or what’s acceptable, without being shoehorned by society or peer pressure into more “typical” roles.

    We’ve largely reached the point where people can physically make these choices– but they still often have to put with a lot of undeserved shit and harassment for it.

    Media stereotypes and defaults are harmful because they reinforce societal expectation and tradition for the sake of tradition– and sometimes even actively promote discrimination.

  3. Perhaps I’m not picking up on what opinions you find acceptable and which ones you find “dismissive.” I personally find the opinion that it was a “tired stereotype” not only dismissive, but extremely degrading. I’m not talking about theoretical offenses by some half perceived ideological notion of what someone MIGHT think about a comic. I am talking about ACTUAL people with REAL lives. This person’s response was a blatant disapproval for the way an actual person behaves while the comic had (at most) an unintentionally inferred meaning.

    Let me present this in a different way: Perhaps the artist lives within the family dynamic that is portrayed in the comic. Perhaps he actually appreciates his wife for being a counter to his impulsiveness. So he writes a comic in an analogous celebration of that dynamic. Then someone comes along and says it portrays a “tired stereotype” and that writers and artists should stop using it because it is portraying women in ways that is improper. Is it not wrong to say that a writer and artist cannot portray his own life? Is it not wrong to inform the writer or artist that his relationship is a living embodiment of negative gender bias when he is simply expressing a funny moment from his life?

    It should also be noted that this comic is just one window into a larger work. The artist shows this same couple in a multitude of situations which counter the stereotypical gender roles. The female in the comic is also a gamer and, often, fills the role of the obsessive and impulsive partner. Perhaps it is a bit irresponsible to judge an artist’s message and contribution to the issue of gender bias on just one piece.

    While I am not the artist in question, here, I can absolutely relate to what he’s saying and I find the claim that it is portraying women incorrectly to be… well… absolutely insulting. Just because the responder did not live like this, she feels she can make the choice of appropriateness for all other women? Why can’t we just portray our lives the way they are and let people decide how they want to be? Folks are smart. They’ll figure out what is right for their own lives.

    Defend this claim of misogyny, if you feel you must. But I feel it is beneath your usual credibility and diligent efforts to so. I fear you’ve become so wrapped up in the dogma of the cause that you’ve begun to swing at every shadow just to prove a point. You should pick your battles more responsibly. Crying wolf over something as minor as this is… well… damaging. Is a cause of ideology worth it when the real people you are trying to defend get hurt by it?

    • In the third paragraph from the bottom of my original post, I addressed the issue of the larger work (even going so far as to find the original source, which was missing on Facebook). And if you don’t see why “it’s just a joke” is such a problematic response, after everything I’ve written, then nothing I write here will change your mind.

      The discussion I’m interested in having isn’t actually about this one comic– it’s about the larger media and cultural context that we live in, of which this comic is unavoidably one very tiny part. It’s not about “fixing” this one comic– it’s about ending overused stereotypes in media. People are too complicated to be stereotypes, but characters in media often are not.

      Your argument seems to be that if the stereotype portrays a behavior or aspect that exists anywhere in real life, it’s not a stereotype and can’t be called out as such– in which case, there’s no such thing as a stereotype. Yet they very much do exist, and are clearly defined in the dictionary:

      This isn’t about you, or your wife, nor is it trying to chastise certain behaviors in real life. As a white straight male, I recognize that my “type” is pretty much the default in media/business/politics/etc., that more efforts need to be made to encourage diversity both in fictional portrayals and in real life. Does that I mean I feel bad about being a white straight male? Fuck no. I am who I am, and I’m happy to be where and who I am.

      Another, perhaps better, example: Barbie dolls, despite being around for decades, still portray a simplified, stereotyped idea both of a woman’s ideal appearance and, largely, of her behavior. The first talking Barbie doll said things like “I love shopping!” and “Math is hard!” And they rightfully got a lot of flack for it. Does that mean there aren’t women out there who love to shop? Of course not. Does that mean there aren’t women out there who suck at Math? Of course not. But those are stereotypes of women. If you don’t see why it’s problematic for Mattel to put those in a Barbie doll played with by millions of little girls… again, I’m not sure anything else I say here will be useful.

      I do appreciate your compliments, and I’m glad you have a high opinion (or did, anyway) of my credibility and diligency. I’m not going to criticize you for being offended– that’s entirely your right– all I can say is that I think your basis for being offended is off. You’re seeing something as a personal attack, when in reality it’s a criticism of the cultural context. The comic was just a springboard for that discussion.

      I think the failure of communication happening here is that I (and the people in the Facebook discussion thread) were talking about stereotypes as portrayed in the broader context of our culture, while you (and the poster on Facebook) are still pissed off at the implication that something is wrong with families whose dynamics mirror the comic. In that case, I apologize, because that’s not what I’m trying to say at all, and I will try to find a better way to communicate that next time.

  4. Seriously? Did you just link a definition of stereotype? I’m well aware of what a stereotype is. And I never once stated that they do not exist. But I do appreciate the education. You want to talk about being dismissive? You take one section of an artist’s work and one comment from a single person and immediately categorize them as being “part of the problem.” You claim to champion a cause of individuality and yet you completely generalize a dogmatic ideology without concern for the individual experience. Even more problematic is that you’ve obviously approached this entire discussion from the standpoint that I am disagreeing with you simply because I am uninformed. Then you accuse *others* of being dismissive. Perhaps you need to step back and take a hard look at how you approach the issues you decide to champion. But since I am obviously not on your level of expertise on the subject, I see no reason to bother you with further discussion.

    • If your disagreement with me is not rooted in ignorance, I wish you’d attack me on the substance of my arguments rather than my tone. And I wish you’d stop attacking me based on my characterization of a discussion for which you weren’t even there.

      Moreover, you don’t really give any suggestion that you’ve actually read what I’ve written. You’re simply repeating the same arguments and re-stating how you feel slighted and that I’ve ignored the individual experience, which I think I’ve clearly addressed in every single comment. And you’re so wrapped up in how I’ve apparently been hypocritical that you haven’t even slightly addressed the substance of the actual point I’m trying to make.

      To be honest, I don’t think your disagreement with me is based in ignorance– I think your disagreement with me is based in you cherry-picking my words only to support your initial reaction, and not actually caring about what I actually have to say. So you’re right, there’s no point in continuing this discussion.

      (Edit: For the record, it was not my intent to be condescending by linking to the dictionary, and I apologize if it came off that way. I thought the dictionary phrased the definition better than I could, and its wording was relevant to the discussion. Moreover, if I had attempted to define it myself, I doubt you’d have agreed, so I was appealing to an outside authority in support of my argument.

      But since we’ve pretty clearly established that you don’t care about my argument, it was obviously a waste of time, as was the whole discussion. To prevent it from continuing, I’ve blacklisted you from commenting. For a while there, I thought you were arguing in good faith, and I’m sorry to be proven wrong.)

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