The Uncomfortable Task of Defending Mike Ward’s Free Speech Rights

Mike Ward is acting like a creep.

Let’s get that out of the way right now.  Ward’s behaviour in continuing to mock a bullied young man with a disability is indefensible.  I don’t care if it’s a comedy routine.  I don’t care if it’s in the interests of free speech.  Grown ups should pick on grown ups and not kids.  Stop it, Mike Ward.

The media is equally to blame for any additional bullying this young man receives, since they continue to splash his name and image all over the internet, providing no context that Ward’s behaviour is very wrong… even if it’s not a violation of anyone’s human rights.  In their opinion.  The Quebec human rights tribunal disagrees.

And this is where we get to the point where I have to make the case that the ruling against Ward’s disgusting behaviour is, in the context it was made, a very bad precedent.

The argument is that the young man, Jérémy Gabriel, had his dignity violated when Ward mocked the young man’s appearance — facial deformities caused by a condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome, a medical condition that affects the bones and tissues of the face.  I’m almost inclined to agree with the judge here that Ward wasn’t just making fun of a person.  Ward was cruelly mocking the young man, who was only 14 or 15 years old at the time, for having a disability.

Like I said, Ward’s behaviour disgusts me.  But note that I also said “almost inclined to agree”.

I’m no stranger to bullying myself.  I’ve been picked on my entire life for my appearance, including being told by so-called evangelical Christians at my school that spotted skin — a reference to my freckles — was a mark of Satan.

But I can relate to poor Jérémy’s story in another way.  When I was seventeen, I got dumped by a guy.  Within days of that breakup, which I was told was at the suggestion of his therapist, I received a call.  It was a stand up comedian at a popular local comedy club, calling from my ex-boyfriend’s cell phone.  With my ex-boyfriend in the audience.

The comedian proceeded to mock me in a goofy voice, referring to personal details of the defunct relationship, while I could hear the audience laughing loudly in the background.

I started crying.  I asked the comedian why he was doing this.  Apparently the audience could hear me, because it went silent.  At some point, I swore at him, and slammed the phone down.  I remember this detail because I got in trouble from my mother for dropping an f-bomb in front of her friends.  What can I say?  I’m the product of fairly strict parenting.

There was follow up with the club, which tried to defend the comedian.  The comedian himself never contacted me or did anything directly to try to make it right.  I was told by the club the comedian “felt bad”, but not that he knew what he’d done was wrong.  Of course not.  That gets you sued.

My mother and I were offered free passes to the comedy club.  I refused them, feeling like they were trying to buy me off with surprisingly little.  In a shocking twist of irony, I had to perform at that very same club years later as part of my job, because it was, at the time, the biggest comedy club in the city.  I did it, but I’ve never forgotten the cruelty, and the apathy after the fact.  I don’t even remember the comedian’s name, but I do remember the name of the executive at the club that tried to sweep it under the rug.

Again, I won’t say his name, because that gets you sued.

All I wanted was for everyone involved to realize that what they did was wrong; specifically, it was wrong to drag in someone over a telephone who didn’t pay admission, and therefore didn’t consent to be a part of the show.  I don’t remember if they ever agreed to that, and I was left feeling like there were no real consequences for what the comedian did.  He never had to apologize directly to me.

Similarly, Mike Ward doesn’t seem to realize what he did was wrong, because he’s still doing it.  He’s still mocking the kid in relation to this tribunal decision.  The media is also repeating the joke.  The media should not be repeating the joke.

So this Quebec human rights decision has further robbed Jérémy Gabriel of his dignity, instead of beginning the healing process.  And my God, I feel terrible for the kid, because I know what it’s like.

You feel dehumanized.  You feel like the world has determined that you’re less deserving of decency and kindness because of something you can’t control.  You feel powerless to set personal boundaries, because the world isn’t giving you the tools to do so.  You look ahead toward the rest of your life, and all you see is more mockery, more cruelty, and more hate.

If this sounds maudlin, keep in mind, we’re dealing with a teenaged mindset.

The goal here is to get the mockery of Jérémy Gabriel to stop, and this decision didn’t do that.  It made it worse.  In attempting to “get tough” on hate speech, the Quebec human rights tribunal just became complicit in spreading it around.

I’m a big believer in free speech, and I don’t believe there should have been a human rights complaint against Mike Ward.  I think that there should be some system that made Mike Ward have to face the young man that he mocked for money and attention.  If the kid was bullied, Mike Ward should have had to go into the schools, admit he was wrong, and set a positive example instead of continuing to set a negative one.

We shouldn’t need to be talking about human rights in this case.  What Mike Ward did was just an old-fashioned rejection of basic human decency.

Jérémy Gabriel is disabled, and Mike Ward should be damned grateful that he’s able-bodied and doesn’t have symptoms that can include vision loss, deafness and breathing problems.  It’s not funny to make fun of someone’s disability without their consent — I add the consent caveat because many comedians, including myself, include their personal biographies in their own material.  One of the funniest stand-up comedians I personally know, Andre Arruda, does hysterical material surrounding his experiences as a disabled person.

But making fun of a kid isn’t fair game.  Please, someone show this article to Mike Ward, and try to get him to understand that.

There’s a wrinkle to this, however, and it speaks to an uncomfortable element of our free-speech-driven society.  Jérémy Gabriel isn’t just any kid.  Jérémy Gabriel is a performer and something of a celebrity, having sung for the Pope.  Once you cross over into the public realm that way, you open yourself up to a greater degree of criticism, and that criticism is often scathingly cruel.

I can speak to this as well.  I was a competitive dancer, starting seriously at the age of 14.  You had to get tough fast in that world, because adults constantly mocked our bodies — our weight, our breast development, even criticizing teenagers going through that notorious awkward phase for not being beautiful enough for the judges’ liking.  The dance world is brutal.  The problem with becoming a youth performer is that you’re ending your childhood early.  You’re stepping into the realm of professional performer, and you have to grow up fast or it eats you alive.

And it almost did eat me alive, but that’s a story for another time.

More to the current point, I speak from experience here from both sides.  I produced and co-wrote a show for MuchMusic called Fromage, which was an annual special starring Ed the Sock where we made fun of the most overplayed music videos of the calendar year.  We went out of our way to make it as fair as possible, allowing the audience to both nominate and vote on the videos that were going into the special, because at times it did get mean-spirited.

Some of the people we made fun of were minors.  Notably Britney Spears.  It was assumed that Spears was fair game because she waded into the growing culture war by declaring that, despite her sexualized music video content, that she was a virgin.  Spears was very young at the time, but the assumption in entertainment is that someone that rich and famous is, to an extent, shielded by handlers from haters.  Spears eventually cracked up, so I guess we were wrong about that.

A joke also got through once that was perceived to fat-shame Missy Elliot.  I didn’t write it, but I still regret not catching the problem.  It wasn’t intended to fat shame — it was intended to mock a particular series of images that had Missy gliding across the floor on her stomach, face down.  The joke was “What’s she doing?  Looking for crumbs?”

Like I said, I didn’t catch the unintentional subtext at the time.  In hindsight, I get it, and we were more careful moving forward.  The lines in comedy are often very blurry, and not everyone is going to agree.  So this is where I put on my comedian hat and make the case that a human rights complaint was not the way to punish Mike Ward for, again, legitimately deplorable behaviour.

I give the Jérémy Gabriels of the world credit for standing up to the Mike Wards of the world.  I just think that the best way to get guys like Mike Ward to stop being disgusting is to use your own free speech rights to take them on in a battle of ideas.  If Ward can dish out this kind of mockery, he should be able to take it.  It’s easy to beat Ward at his own game, because making fun of a kid’s disability simply isn’t funny.  There are plenty of jokes that can be made at Mike Ward’s expense, such as…

Should a guy REALLY be making fun of a kid’s looks when he looks like a cross between Steve Buscemi and BeBop?  Not judging!  Just saying!

mike-ward bebop3

Or this:

Mike Ward should know that fellow comedian Bob Saget has a nephew with Treacher Collins Syndrome.  The two should talk, so Ward can learn brand new ways to be totally unfunny.

Or this:

Mike Ward says he was fined for treating a disabled boy like an equal.  Well, sure dude.  No one wants to be compared to a Canadian stand-up comic!

Or something more broadly insulting:

Quebec comedian Mike Ward is best known for things that offend and annoy other Canadians.  Like almost everything else that comes out of Quebec.  Poutine is an apology gift.

For the record, I don’t actually think Mike Ward is ugly, Bob Saget is unfunny, that Canadian comedians are the lowest form of life, or that everyone hates Quebecers.  You stretch things for jokes.  But if Mike Ward tells these sorts of jokes, he should be able to take them.  Believe it or not, a lot of comedians are very thin-skinned and approval seeking, and mockery is an effective way to modify their behaviour.

Instead of making Mike Ward into a free speech hero, the way a $42,000 series of fines does, we should be asking the hard questions about what exactly happened here.  Why did a kid get bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts because of comedy material that should, by rights, be reserved for adult audiences only?  Why didn’t Jérémy Gabriel’s community leaders lead, and why didn’t his teachers teach, to get the bullying to stop?

Well, we know that teachers don’t intervene because they don’t want to get sued.  So the entire system is suffering because of too much litigation.  Our system of laws is designed to promote good behaviour, but it’s getting in the way of that now.  Companies and individuals won’t offer simple apologies to people, or try to make things right, because it creates a higher likelihood they’ll be successfully sued.

We need a system that encourages self-directed accountability.  We need a system focused on restorative justice.  Financial penalties won’t curb Mike Ward’s behaviour here, because one TV special based on his increased notoriety will turn him a profit in this situation.

Ward just doesn’t seem moved by the pain of a young man who had the genetic deck stacked against him, and this is being lost in an understandable defence of Free Speech protections.  The systemic overreach is clear in this case, since it’s accomplished the precise opposite of what it’s intended to do.

Put Mike Ward in a room with the kid and make him sit and say nothing while Jérémy Gabriel walks him through the pain his “humour” caused.  Make it clear that when you know the subject of your jokes is really hurt by your jokes — not offended, but sincerely caused pain — and you keep telling the same damned jokes… that crosses the line between comedy and bullying.

Mike Ward is no longer a comedian here.  Mike Ward has become, in this one instance, a bully.  He’s been told to stop mocking a disabled kid and he won’t stop.  And we should be able to call that out.

That’s the best way to enact real change here.  As is, the Quebec tribunal and the media at large are complicit in continuing to repeat Ward’s cruelty in the guise of humour.

 

 

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Brexit: The UK Should Have Noted Canada’s History of Referendums

Fifty-two percent of seventy-two percent of UK voters voted to leave the European Union, and so, due to a lack of leadership, a poorly structured referendum, and a poorly informed electorate, Britain’s near-term political and economic future was decided by, according to the voting breakdowns, working class outrage and xenophobic old people.

This result does not, as some news reports claim, indicate that a majority of UK residents want to leave the Euro zone.  In fact, it shows that only a minority felt strongly enough to vote leave, with nearly twenty-eight percent of folks being unsure, having no opinion, or just not caring enough one way or another.  The fact that a minority got to decide something this massive is an indicator that the people who set up the rules of the referendum didn’t know what they were doing.  This could all have been avoided by setting up referendum requirements for a “Leave” result that required a majority of the population to vote Leave, not just a majority of voters.

Technical issues like this have been an aspect of the Canadian political landscape for most of my life. In 1980, and 1995, Quebec had referendums on separating from the rest of Canada, couched in the language of economics and taxes, but really a question of xenophobia and the French Canadian identity conspiring to make Quebecers flirt with doing something really dumb.

The separatists were dealt a major blow in the first referendum when Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of our current Prime Minister and himself Quebecois, pointed out that many of these diehard French Canadians had English and Irish last names.  Trudeau the Elder was one of Canada’s great multiculturalists, and he understood that while identity is important, it’s arbitrary.  People choose for themselves what elements of their identity they’re going to highlight, or worse, wield as a cudgel against others.  After the failure of the separatist side in the referendum, Quebec refused to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, otherwise known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  None of this has anything to do with economics, taxation, or other economic concerns.  It has to do with which peoples are fair game to treat as the Other.  Ironically, Quebec has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of this Charter: due to the continuing political instability and arduous language laws suppressing the Quebec economy, Quebec has been the beneficiary of equalization payments designed to prevent undue suffering of Canadian citizens due to disadvantageous local economic conditions.

In 1995, Canada was divided by another referendum.  The separatists had formed the Bloc Quebecois in 1991, a political party primarily concerned with “sovereignty” aka separation, for Quebec.  The Bloc was formed by defectors from both the ruling Progressive Conservative and opposition Liberal parties, after the failure of the Meech Lake Accords in 1987.  The Meech Lake Accords were an attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to drag Quebec, kicking and screaming, into the civil rights consensus shared by the rest of the country–  by offering Quebec decidedly special treatment.  Due to concentration of the vote and a split of the conservative vote between the Progressive Conservatives and the hard right Reform Party, the Bloc Quebecois got enough seats in the 1993 vote to become the Official Opposition to the Liberal Government under Jean Chrétien.  The companion party to the Bloc, the Parti Québécois, also became the head of the government of Quebec, campaigning on the promise of a separation vote.  David Cameron should have taken note of what happened next before opening his damned mouth about a second British exit from a European trading block.  The first “Brexit” vote happened in 1975, when the core of the Euro zone was referred to as the “European Economic Community”.

The 1995 referendum was a uniquely ugly part of Canadian history.  Politicians started using Canada’s two official languages – English and Quebecois French – to propagandize.  The provincial Quebec government did everything it could to stack the deck in favor of a separation vote, instead of a neutral process that truly assessed the will of the people of the province.  Even the referendum question was subject to petty fighting and dirty tricks – the official question made it sound as though the Canadian government had agreed to a guaranteed economic partnership with a separate Quebec, when it had not.  To counter the dirty tricks of the separatists, the Chrétien government devised the Sponsorship program, intended to show Quebecers the extent of the investments the federal government was making in the province.  The Sponsorship program was mired in fraud and corruption, resulted in jail time for some of the participants, and nearly destroyed the federal Liberal Party.

In the wake of a very close vote in favour of Quebec remaining in Canada, the federal government passed a law dictating a formal process for negotiations between the feds and any province which wished to separate from Canada.  Called “The Clarity Act”, it gave the House of Commons – Canada’s version of congress – the right to determine whether a referendum question was clear enough for a vote.  It also dictated that First Nations bands would be part of the negotiations; this was a major sticking point in Quebec, because Indigenous tribes control the bulk of the Northern half of the province.  As First Nations already have a form of limited self rule, they don’t much like any government telling them what to do, including the government of Quebec.

Since the 1995 referendum, Quebec struggled economically.  For over ten years it wasn’t unusual to see boarded up buildings in the downtown areas of Montreal.  Due to the instability, businesses had moved their Canadian head offices from Montreal where the rent was cheaper, to various parts of Ontario.  Businesses continue to fight with the Quebecois government over signage requirements: Quebec is one of the only places in the world that requires copyrighted names like “Walmart” to come up with a French equivalent – “Le Magasin Walmart”, for instance, which means “The Walmart Store”.  Printing unique signs for one small territory is so cost prohibitive that some companies would rather fight the government in court and pay fines than pay for the signs.

The thing that makes this all uniquely relevant to the Brexit vote was that at the core of the separation furor wasn’t really economics.  It was culture.  The Quebec establishment wanted unchallenged rights to control language, religion, and immigration statutes.  They were willing to tank their local economy to keep out people they considered to be “not like them”.  One of the turning points in the last federal election – which led to the election of Justin Trudeau – was a repudiation of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reference to “Old Stock Canadians” in a debate.  “Old Stock” is a term that traces back to French Canadian terms, “pure laine” or “pure wool” and “de souche” or “root”, and it describes “Pure blood” French Canadians, or English, Irish, and Scottish interbreeding as long as there was a shared Roman Catholic heritage.

The Canada of today is a place that at least attempts to make immigrants and refugees feel welcome.  It still doesn’t always succeed, and unfortunate racism, especially against people of Muslim heritage, still does happen.  That’s to be expected after two decades of post-separatist tribalism.  Canada had divided into regional federal political power bases, with the Conservatives controlling the Prairies, the NDP taking the coasts, and the Liberals retreating mostly to Ontario, while the separatists controlled Quebec until the “Orange Crush” of Jack Layton’s NDP swept out the Bloc.  After the country had remained relatively strong during the global economic crisis – thanks to smart-but-unpopular economic policy by Chrétien’s Liberals – Stephen Harper’s Conservatives overemphasized oil to appeal to his regional Tar Sands base in Alberta and Saskatchewan — so when the cost of oil sank, so did the country’s economic prospects.  Cartoonish local politicians like Rob Ford became the fashion for a while.  Canadian politics became obsessed with the appearance of “strength” instead of effectiveness, so our infrastructure crumbled, our social ties weakened, and our innovation dried up.

Welcome to your likely future the next decade, United Kingdom.  Expect old tensions in Scotland and Ireland to rear up again, because they don’t agree with the vote.  Expect greater divisions between city dwellers in London who voted Remain and more rural types who wanted out.  You’ll fight the wrong fights, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons.  But you’ll eventually wake up and realize it’s all stupid.  The choice you have to make is how many people will be hurt and how many lives will be ruined in service of your culture war.

The other takeaway is that representative democracy doesn’t mean “the people” should vote on every major decision.  David Cameron has shown a dual lack of leadership in calling for that referendum in the first place, then quitting instead of seeing through what he started.  Much like Canada now, Cameron’s successor will inherit a raging mess, because day-to-day government business still has to continue while a country faces the consequences of royally screwing the pooch.

Some of the most progressive decisions in Canada’s history have been made by government action, not the direct will of the people.  Canada (except Quebec) was ahead of the curve on giving women the right to vote.  We were early adopters of gay marriage rights.  We have a (mostly) functioning immigration and refugee processing system.  We don’t tear each other apart over abortion.  We respect rational religious and cultural freedoms and have adapted our official uniforms to accommodate religious headwear.  We provide (mostly) universal healthcare.  We’re now tackling the difficult issue of assisted dying.  We do our best to actively combat racism, we don’t let our large cities crumble, and while our gun problem is increasing, we have the tough conversations on legislation to curb gun violence.  We make mistakes in early legislation and we fix them.  We don’t scrap bills and start all over on a regular basis.

Canada is, in many ways, a progressive beacon for the world, but the vast majority of these hugely beneficial decisions were unpopular at the time they were enacted, or they were forced by our Supreme Court.  There are many bright moments in Canadian history where governments dared to do what was right for the country, even though vocal minorities, and sometimes even majorities, screamed that a socially progressive choice would lead to our doom.  Our leaders, for the most part, have had the courage to lead, whether it be Justin Trudeau’s much mocked gender-parity in cabinet, or Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade agreement with the US.  Even Bob Rae’s hated “Rae Day” furloughs of Ontario government employees probably saved a lot of jobs, though the public sector despised him for it.  Some on the left still hate Paul Martin for his cuts to health care as federal finance minister, but he got the job done and prevented economic disaster.

Even the much-maligned Stephen Harper, despite some disastrous economic decisions, had the guts to make choices.  Some of them were even good ones.  Harper was the Prime Minister who finally achieved consensus with Quebec on Quebec “as a nation within a united Canada”.  All parties supported the motion, and for the first time in decades, Canada is free from separatist rumblings.  Harper’s largest failings came from inaction: prorogation of Parliament, a refusal to appoint senators until his hand was forced, and ignoring small problems that turned into overly large ones, like Mike Duffy.  For all his talk of strength, Harper’s greatest weakness was that he too-often dithered to hold on to power for power’s sake.  Government’s first priority is to keep government functioning.  Any deadlock is a sign of failure.  Are you listening, America?  Because your big choice is coming up in November.

The UK is facing short-term calamity because its leaders failed to lead.  Waves of political grandstanding have collapsed like a house of cards, and fear of the outsider festered within British leadership’s accountability gap.  I suggest Britain’s next crop of decision-makers look to Canada to see how to right the ship, because despite our country’s reputation as being populated by polite apologists, we’ve got a track record of electing leaders who knew when to be badasses.  Perhaps it’s even time for the rise of another Thatcher in Britain:  Iron Maggie sure knew how to get things done.

 

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Why The Identity Politics Freak Outs Over This Week’s Person of Interest Are Totally Wrong

I gave this a few days before posting because MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

Months before the final season of Person of Interest began airing, the show’s producers and star Michael Emerson cautioned that some of the beloved series leads would not make it out alive.  And sure enough, Samantha “Root” Groves, played with wild-eyed glee by Amy Acker, caught a bullet this week and ended up in the morgue.

Oh and series regular mob boss Elias got shot in the head too, but twitter didn’t freak out about that.  Because Elias is a white, straight male, so it doesn’t matter to the politically correct masses if he gets murdered in cold blood.

The response to Root’s death wasn’t sadness.  It was outrage.  Outrage that Person of Interest would DARE to kill a lesbian character in order to advance the plot of the two male leads… even though that plot itself comes to an end in three episodes.

The flaws in this thinking go deeper than timing.  Killing Root was going to cause a stir, certainly, due to the character’s popularity.  But the way they did it sends the character off in a way that is the happiest possible ending based on her worldview, and the keyboard warriors missed that entirely.

Before Root was branded “queer”, she was a hacker and contract killer, shown to be mentally unstable and possessed by the religious-like belief that the Machine that is central to the show’s premise is a form of higher being – a God, she eventually calls it – and that it needs to be set free.  Root’s first encounter with eventual love interest Sameen Shaw involves Root tasering Shaw, zip tying her to a chair, and threatening to torture her.  Shaw herself is another assassin with a self-diagnosed Axis II personality disorder.  Root affectionately refers to her as a “sociopath”.

At some point along the way, the fan base decided to ignore the fact that both these women are mentally ill rabbit boilers – Audience proxy Detective Lionel Fusco refers to Root as “Coco Puffs”, because she’s that cuckoo.  For some odd reason, the fans decided that the “happy” ending would be for Root and Shaw to ride off into the nutbag sunset together and live unstably happy-ever-after, but this would have been lame: love doesn’t cure serious mental illness, nor does it make a sociopath learn empathy for other people.

So why this “Shroot” fan cannon became a thing, I have no idea, other than the reality that fans of a series tend to ignore the less-than-virtuous elements of charismatic characters.  Root being a woman who has sex with women doesn’t change the number of people she killed, the number of laws she broke, and the number of government entities she pissed off.

Root’s driving motivation for all the carnage is the protection and empowerment of the Machine that uses the camera and microphone system of New York City to spy on its citizens and predict crimes.  Programmed by series lead Harold Finch (played by Michael Emerson) to have empathy for human beings and protect them whenever possible, the Machine is Root’s greatest love, and it’s this Machine Root gets to be with at the end.  This makes sense, because the Machine is probably more capable of returning Root’s love than Shaw is on a long term basis.

For multiple seasons now, Root has expressed her belief that the Machine’s survival is more important than her own, and her desire to be connected to it – she gets herself a cochlear implant so the machine can “take” to her via soundbites of recorded words.  When the machine stops talking to her, Root becomes depressed.  Finch must literally cage the machine to stop Root from making “improvements” to it that could render it beyond Finch’s ability to control.  All the while, the main villain of the later half of the series – another Artificial Super Intelligence named Samaritan – reminds the viewer of what can happen when an adaptive AI is given free reign to determine what it must do in the name of self-preservation.  Samaritan is self-serving.  The Machine is altruistic. And the underlying message is that computers, as well as people, are only as virtuous as the code they’re fed in their formative years.  Finch, who was menaced by Root in her earlier appearances, doesn’t trust Root to have the wisdom to program the Machine for the greater good, and he’s probably right.

However, the Machine chooses Root as her “analog interface” at the beginning of season 3, after Root tells a psychiatrist that she believes the Machine is a god in feminine form – the Machine tends to use female voice snippets more than male ones, but Root’s ego likely has a lot to do with her gendering the Machine female too.  When the Machine selects Root as “her” analog interface, “she” does so knowing that there is a high probability this will result in Root’s death.

Root accepts the risks.  She believes that being favored by the Machine will grant her a form of immortality: as long as the Machine’s analog interfaces are in the Machine’s code, they will live on within her.  After Root’s death, the Machine selects a single voice with which to communicate based on a massive trove of vocal recordings.  That voice is Root’s.

So Root does get a happily ever after with the woman of her dreams.  That woman just isn’t Shaw.  If some fans were less obsessed with identity politics and having their personal identity validated by a TV show about people shooting each other over computers, then perhaps they’d have seen the bigger, more poignant picture of Root’s conclusion…

Root didn’t die to advance the plot of male main characters.  Root died to complete her own story.

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The Sarkeesian Sexism in Uncharted 4

(Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4, blahblahblah)

I really enjoyed Uncharted 4, as I have enjoyed all the Uncharted games.  They’re top notch in many ways, and I recommend them.  What they are not, however, is feminist.  That’s okay.  They don’t have to be.  I still like them.

But it’s important to point out that the Uncharted games are homages to serial adventure stories, and those include some decidedly dated gender-based tropes. In order to effectively modernize the adventure serial, its important to recognize these tropes for what they are.

So it’s baffling to me that Anita Sarkeesian fan Neil Druckmann, the creative director on the game, decided to shame a playtester on Uncharted 4 who, among other things, had the reaction that many gamers are having to the second generation mercenary character, Nadine Ross.  He got pissed off that Nadine seemed like a “Strong Female Character” instead of a developed character.

ps4-Uncharted4-Nadine-Ross-1-664x335

I totally disagree with the playtester’s additional opinions on giving Nate and Elena a daughter, but playtesting is supposed to be a confidential process where people are honest about their feelings.  People don’t sign up to be mocked by the devs for having an honest reaction because that reaction was wrong.  You want unfiltered feedback, even if its stupid.  You can’t get that if playtesters think you might mock them in the press for political correctness points.

And that playtester wasn’t wrong about Nadine Ross.

The very thing that creates weaknesses in Nadine as a character was the Sarkeesian-inspired thing Druckmann is patting himself on the back for: changing male characters into female ones “to be different” instead of creating female characters from the outset.

Nadine is a stock character with a makeover.  Remember the big sub boss dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indiana Jones fought around the airplane?

That’s the role Nadine plays in Uncharted 4.  And yes, absolutely, that character kicks the crap out of the hero unless the hero fights dirty.  But there’s a physicality to that character trope that isn’t there with Nadine: these characters tend to look physically intimidating, not like retired supermodels on high protein diets with gym-sculpted shoulders.

Nadine fell into a trope that didn’t end up on Tropes vs Women: Superwoman Syndrome.  Superwoman Syndrome is a state recognized by post-second wave feminists as a “double enslavement” of women.  Not only are women now supposed to be perfect wives and homemakers, but we’re supposed to be perfect at everything else too.

The problem with Superwoman Syndrome is that it’s impossible to be perfect at everything.  So the ongoing attempts to be perfect at everything wear women down and make us physically and mentally sick.  It’s a uniquely profound issue for black women, something Nadine’s motion capture actress, Laura Bailey, couldn’t bring to the part because Naughty Dog cast a white woman.  That’s the developer’s right, but in light of how the character turned out, I think it’s fair to criticize them for that decision.

The film Deadpool uses the same type of character, but did it right.  When audiences first see Gina Carano’s Angel Dust character, they have the same reaction that they did to that guy in Indiana Jones,  “Oh my freaking god nothing is going to stop that human tank.”  Carano brought a physical presence that was appropriate for the part, and the very same guys complaining about Nadine absolutely love Carano in that role.  It isn’t about misogyny.  It’s about failing to replicate the requirements of the trope in the switch from male to female.

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With Superwoman Syndrome comes a tightening of the beauty myth.  Gina Carano smashed it in Deadpool because she was physically large, but still beautiful and desirable.  But she’s an exception that proves the larger rule that in most media, women look like models no matter what they’re supposed to be playing.  Cops look like models.  Firefighters look like models.  Doctors look like models.  So real life female cops don’t tend to look like the ones you see on TV, while real life male cops do.  That becomes a PR problem for real life first responders.

The social impact goes deeper than that, however.  The body type that keeps getting replicated is decidedly and profoundly white.  The b-to-c-cup breasts, boyish hips, and the lean muscle; the slightly freckled skin and “modest” Western dress that are the hallmarks of Sarkeesian-brand false-feminist character design… this rigid standard marginalizes the beauty paradigms of other cultures.  Latina and Black women have to reclaim their fuller hips and “Oakland booties” to get around accusations that their natural bodies are fat or obscene.  The fear of naked female bodies is colonial thinking.

All Sarkeesian’s followers have done is swap one set of racist, sexist ideals for another, instead of actually reducing racism and sexism.  They’ve just created another trope: The Sarkeesian.  It’s no less sexist to force a woman to conform to the Sarkeesian — a woman who is the embodiment of “strong” until the point that strength might threaten or offend — than, say, a Ms Male Character.

Ellie in The Last of Us and Angel Dust in Deadpool were embraced, because they are not Sarkeesians.  Trishka in Bulletstorm is not a Sarkeesian.  They have personalities and say and do deliberately offensive or “unfeminine” things.  Nadine doesn’t have quotable lines, a distinct look, or any sort of swagger or spark, because those might put someone off.  A Sarkeesian trope character never offends with intent.  That’s what makes them so offensive.

As I said, no one expects the Uncharted games to be paragons of political correctness.  The four most prominent characters in Uncharted 4 — Nate, Sully, Nate’s brother, and the main bad guy – are all white, cisgendered men.  Uncharted games have always been bromances, and that’s fine.  There’s a place for that.  Just don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining feminism.

Furthermore, making a game about men doesn’t mean there’s license to get lazy with the writing of the female characters who ARE included.  There’s a distinct, if subtle, difference in how certain plot and character points are handled in Uncharted 4 than in the previous Uncharted games… when the games were written by a woman, Amy Hennig.  I have never been a big fan of Elena Fisher, but Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 did a lot to pull her away from her stock character “feisty Girl Friday love interest” origins in the original game.  Of course, a lot of men love Elena for the very reasons I despise her in Uncharted and Uncharted 4 – she enables Nate’s truly bad behaviour.

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Elena doesn’t, I believe, get nearly angry enough when Nate yet again lies to her for no good reason.  Of course, it’s very possible that Elena was furious when she first discovered her husband had lied to her a-gain, but we never see that, because her wifely rage happens off screen.  So despite the piles of laundry in their house, Elena is still a Superwoman: she doesn’t have limits or boundaries where a fully-formed woman would.

Nate, and the player, is never truly confronted with the depths of what lying does to your partner.  The game does not confront the player with Elena’s raw, authentic feelings in response to being deceived.  Where Ellie swore, yelled, cried, and smashed stuff in The Last of Us, Elena pouts and offers sage words of understanding.  We don’t see the depths and immediacy of Elena’s pain, we don’t empathize with her the way we do Ellie, because we never see Elena at her worst, so she’s not totally real.

Because Elena is the perfect wife who only gets angry in perfect, private ways.  I’m sure I’m not the only woman who plays this game who has been married long enough to go “Oh come on!  That’s BULLSHIT.”

Oh but we’re not supposed to have that reaction, see?  We’re supposed to be “understanding” and “supportive” partners.  Because when our husband FEELZ BAD, the dutiful wife understands that it’s okay that he acts like an irresponsible manchild instead of discussing the situation like a grown up.  We’re supposed to accept that this is just the way men are.

Bullshit.  Bullshit bullshit bullshit.  There are different ways to be a man, but grown up men are honest.  Lying to your spouse about important things is the fastest way to destroy a marriage.  Nate and Elena broke up multiple times because of his immaturity.  He was supposed to have grown up some at the end of Uncharted 3, which is why they got back together and everyone cheered.

But in Uncharted 4, he’s back to being a dishonest baby, and Elena lets him be a dishonest baby with smiles, loving stokes to his face, and little more than the occasional pout.  He’s worn her down, and at this point she’s accepted that he’s going to lie to her whenever it’s convenient for him to do so, as long as he’s sorry later.  When a partner lies for that long, that consistently, he’s going to keep lying.  He has to want to change not to stop her from leaving — which is still manipulating things to get a desired outcome — but because he realizes that lying to her shows her no respect.  (The same goes for when women lie.  Just in this case, Nate and Elena are a heterosexual couple and the lying partner is male.)

So Nate and Elena go off into domestic bliss, where she never again sets hard boundaries because he’ll just lie his way around them.  Yes, that’s not what the game is supposed to have us believe, but that’s what someone like me, who has been married for seventeen years, sees.  A hard lesson of marriage is that feeling bad isn’t enough.  In order for your partner to trust you, you can’t keep doing the same crap to them over and over.

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Nate and Elena do not have a believable, healthy marriage of equals.  They are a manboy married to a Superwoman.  That’s disappointing, because those marriages don’t tend to last in the real world.  A cycle of passive aggressive resentment forms because the Elena is constantly biting down her anger to be “supportive” and the Nate justifies a string of “white” lies because he doesn’t want to trouble the little wife with the truth.  If he does, she might say no.

These sorts of on-screen marriages are a sexist trope that gets replicated to falsely portray women as superior people in inferior positions.  Since we have to give cutesy names to all these tropes now, let’s call it “Wifey McAwesomesauce”.  Wifey McAwesomesauce is also seen in numerous sitcoms, in which no one can quite figure out why a mature, competent woman is married to Schlubby McScrewup.  Wifey McAwesomesauce has a great job, great clothes, great hair, and raised great kids.  Schlubby McScrewup is a misandrist stereotype who can’t change a diaper, make a school lunch, or drop the kids off without “hilarious” calamity.  And yet the show is always about Schlubby McScrewup because no one actually cares what’s going on in Wifey McAwesome’s mind.  Her perfect perfectness of perfection is only there to validate the comic struggles of her schlub husband.  It’s a rare sitcom, like All In The Family, Roseanne, and Blackish, where the spouses actually seem believably matched.  In these sitcoms, both partners screw up, and they actually yell at each other.  Like, really yell.  The way people do in real life.  The way Elena didn’t yell at Nate.

I’m not saying Naughty Dog should change any of this.  It’s a particular brand of escapist male fantasy, and that’s fine, since the tradition in which the games exist is soaking in that stuff.  But Naughty Dog doesn’t get to play in that sandbox and also collect “Great Male Feminist” points.  Elena may put on a few non-perfect post-baby pounds if they keep trying to have their cake and eat it too.

 

Note: Someone on twitter asked me what I would have changed in Elena’s reaction to make her seem more real.  There are various ways to do that.  A complex way would have been bonus content that allowed the player to play through, as Elena, discovering Nate lied, so we got to see her reaction.  A much faster way would be to have her be less damned nice to him right off the bat.  Saving his life is one thing, but it would have been more satisfying if she saved him without forgiving him right away.  We lost out on a lot of good potential dialogue because Elena was too nice to be fun.

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Elbowgate: False Feminism in Canadian Parliament

I don’t normally write about politics because 1) It’s depressing, 2) way too many people do it, and 3) it’s a great way to get people screaming at you.  But the events this week surrounding Elbowgate are just too stupid to ignore.

Elbowgate is named for the fact that, in a breach of the snooty decorum of Canada’s parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose again after being seated for a session, crossed the floor over to Conservative Whip Gordon Brown – who was with a group of NDP MPs – and… accounts vary depending on who is telling the story.  Either Trudeau led Brown by the arm to his seat, or Trudeau manhandled Brown like a bully.  After viewing the video, it looks to me like it wasn’t exactly helping an old lady crossing the street, but it wasn’t what Donald Trump’s campaign manager is alleged to have done to reporter Michelle Fields.   This, however, was not the eponymous elbow.  That came from the fact that while Trudeau was herding Brown, he accidentally elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest.

It looked like a pretty painful elbow.  Justin Trudeau did a bad thing.  It was not, however, gender-based violence or the deliberate battery of an MP.  And the Conservative and NDP attempts to make it into more than it was backfired, because their outrage made light of some pretty serious issues in an attempt to lower the Prime Minister’s popularity.

Still, this is a wake up call for the Prime Minister.  He isn’t just a politician.  He is a bonafide celebrity.  Like any celebrity, Trudeau is prey to negative twists on his less glorious moments by haters who hate his stupid face.  Tom Mulcair seems to especially despise the young Prime Minister for reasons I haven’t yet been able to establish.  It’s commonly known that the bad blood between the two seems personal, but the reasons why aren’t public.  For the Conservative Party, however, Trudeau is bad for business.  He’s good for Liberal fundraising, and that took away the money advantage that the Conservatives enjoyed for quite some time.  This isn’t the first time they’ve attempted a petty distortion of facts in an attempt to make Trudeau look artificially bad.  Remember those attack ads that started even before the election?

Now, as then, however, Trudeau will likely weather this storm.   The gleeful pearl clutching by his enemies did him a huge favour in that they’re handing Trudeau the potential for an unlikely pr win.

Trudeau hasn’t yet learned the first rule of celebrity: never be your own bad cop.  He needs to stay arms length from any direct unpleasantness lest he wear the mess.  This likely goes against his natural instincts to lead by example, but it’s necessary: Generals aren’t on the front lines for a reason.  Furthermore, Trudeau has had a history of getting worked up in the House.  As an MP, Trudeau had to apologize, rocking a Movember goatee, for calling Conservative Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit.”

You’ll note in that video that Parliament is a pretty boisterous place.  It can be downright juvenile at times.  This is one of the reasons why the NDP and Conservative attempts to make Trudeau seem like a puppy killer just remind Canadians that while Trudeau is not a perfect PM, the Liberals are still the most deserving to lead… Not that this is saying much right now.

Like Hugh Grant after being caught with a hooker, Trudeau is now on another apology tour. The Liberals made the right call withdrawing a controversial bill, called Motion 6, to give them more power, even if they did so for the wrong reasons.  The damage control is proving effective: despite the Conservatives’ protests to the contrary, these actions are a change of both tone and substance from the iron fist rule of the Harper regime, and Canadians tend to be forgiving of prime ministers who get physical — it undermines the Canadian stereotype of being milquetoast-level nice.

However, Trudeau’s sensitive feminist man image would have been left notably bruised, had the opposition parties not acted like bigger idiots.  Elizabeth May was the only party leader with the sense to put practicality above short term political gain, and emerged as the lone grown up in the whole thing.  “I think it’s likely there may have been blame on all sides in leading to the escalation,” May said.  That’s about the best summary of events out there.

Rona Ambrose and Nikki Ashton reminded Canadians that those notorious gender cards come in multiple political colours, and Tom Mulcair reminded everyone why he’s not going to be the leader of the NDP for much longer by appearing to lose his temper worse than Trudeau lost his.  And Brosseau herself fumbled by trying to play up the “personal attacks” she’s received by reminding Canadians that she once took a vacation in Las Vegas in the middle of an election campaign.  The fact that she’s still complaining about the backlash from that makes her seem like a whiner.

At least it would make her seem like a whiner if she were a man.  The NDP seems to think that Brosseau being a woman is far more relevant in this situation than it is.

Both the Conservatives and the NDP are overselling their cases, and it’s stupid: Trudeau has a lot of time left in a very strong majority, so crying wolf now weakens future gut punches closer to an election where Canadians elect the best leader, not a perfect one.

Canadians understand someone losing their temper and doing something stupid.  They don’t understand claiming that taking hold of someone’s arm is a crime, or the idea that an accident is somehow a sign that parliament is unsafe for women.  These overreactions alienate the working class swing voters who decide elections, who are much more familiar with being on the wrong end of political correctness than being the victim of social injustices that primarily impact marginalized communities. False accusations of thought crimes are becoming those “kitchen table” issues the NDP believes they own.  The NDP, under Mulcair’s waning leadership, are making fools of themselves.

But the Conservatives are possibly playing this even worse, albeit more subtly. They got thumped in the last election, and Trudeau is still a Luke Skywalker figure who finally defeated Darth Harper.  Never mind that it wasn’t long ago that Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau was charged with actual sexual assault, then pled guilty to simple assault and cocaine possession. Brazeau is currently on a mini image-rehabilitation campaign by talking about trying to take his own life.  The party can’t ask Canadians to understand that good people sometimes do bad things one minute, then throw a tantrum on Trudeau for behaving like something out of an episode of Dallas the next.

The more noise that Elbowgate makes, the more light it throws on the shenanigans instigated by all three parties.  This all may make for a few barn burner fundraising emails, but otherwise its a big load of politicians acting like teenagers and committing premature outrage ejaculation.

Like it or not, politics is still a game of who has the biggest proverbial dick, and by not stooping to everyone else’s level, Elizabeth May won the political penis-measuring contest.  Trudeau came out in second place, however, just because the other two parties complained the room was cold.

I’m left to wonder whether this is all a way to avoid tackling, as the Supreme Court has mandated the government must, the thorny issue of assisted dying. Any bill that the government comes up with is going to piss off part of the opposition parties’ base: religious conservatives don’t like it because it interferes with “God’s plan”, and some advocates for the profoundly disabled who tend to vote NDP are concerned about what these laws will mean for the right to life of those for whom they advocate. They can’t, however, openly defy the Supreme Court, so they seem to be hoping to run the clock out to make the Liberals look unable to get things done.
Darth Harper showed, time and again, that it’s better to look like a bully than a weak leader.  So it might not have been a bad idea for Trudeau to literally go down swinging.  I know I’d rather vote for a guy who accidentally elbowed an MP who happened to be a woman than for either party who doesn’t understand that equality actually means equality, not treating women like we’re inherently less tough than men in politics. Again, Elizabeth May seems to have the biggest stones in Ottawa — Trudeau let himself be goaded into a PR debacle, and the NDP and Conservatives seem to think that the social problem of violence against women can be used for a cheap stunt.

Violence against anyone is wrong.  Violence against women is uniquely wrong because the implication is that the victim of the abuse can’t fight back.  Accidentally bumping a Member of Parliament is NOT violence against women.

The stupid games that happen while the House is sitting must end, but Elbowgate is more of the same, not the reform all parties claim to want.

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He’s Sorry, But… How A Guy Like Jian Ghomeshi Rots A Media Team From The Inside

We finally have proof, in Jian Ghomeshi’s own words, that he committed wrongdoing against at least one female member of his staff at the CBC.  He was the boss, she was a subordinate, and the act was sexualized in nature.  No longer can he claim that he was falsely accused.  No longer can he assert that his accusers are all lying.  He had to admit he did wrong, and he only said as much as was required to avoid jail.  Because he’s rich, he’ll never know what it’s like to be truly powerless.  He’ll never totally understand what he did to the employees he abused.

And yes, employees, plural.  According to Ghomeshi’s own statement, he misled a lot of people in falsely protesting his complete innocence.  Remember that he previously insisted that every encounter of a sexual nature he’d had with a woman was consensual.  We now know that, at least regarding Kathryn Borel, this was not the case.

I still don’t believe Jian Ghomeshi understands the damage he caused by abusing his substantial media power to make at least one woman his plaything.  He still doesn’t totally get the inherent dominance displayed in the act he was accused of – humping a woman’s butt.  Most species of mammal inherently understand that this is a non-verbal communication of “you’re my bitch”.  Mr Ghomeshi is the sort of entitled idiot that is inspiring the rise of demeaning “consent classes” for innocent, considerate men by perpetuating the lie that he didn’t know that inherently wrong behaviour was wrong.

We’re expected to listen and believe his words, because he’s positioning himself as just another victim –a victim of ignorance.  I don’t buy it.  I believe he knew his behaviour was wrong for lesser men because he lectured people about it on the radio all the time via words written by other people.  He just didn’t think the exact same conduct was wrong for an important man like him.  He justified it by believing that his happiness and comfort was just more important then that of the woman he used to show what a big man he was without her consent.

Too often in the media, emotionally immature bullies end up in positions of leadership.  They’re not equipped to deal with the pressure, so they abuse their staff.  They get away with it because many in the media won’t report the bad behaviour of others for fear that their own skeletons will get ripped out of the closet in retaliation.  They’re right to fear that.  That’s exactly what happens.  A cornered narcissist is a nasty beast.

Jian Ghomeshi’s fall, however, is only one part of this story.  There are dozens, if not hundreds of stories tied up in the damage he did – there were compelling rumors about the guy for years, coupled with an undeniable string of public temper tantrums.  Worse, Jian Ghomeshi is not an isolated phenomenon.  There are so many people in Canadian media who abuse their power that I started keeping a mental list of the ones who didn’t actively treat me like garbage.  It was much shorter.

The bullies aren’t all men either.  Notorious women, at the CBC and beyond, keep getting powerful jobs and keep abusing their staff with put downs, professional sabotage, screaming sessions, stolen ideas, and even sometimes physical isolation and abuse.  With women and closeted gay men, the first thing a bully will use as a weapon is their sexuality.  Slut shaming and forced “outings” are powerful weapons in the hands of a workplace media bully.

The cycle goes something like this: the person in a position of power starts the process of negatively labelling an ambitious young employee.  For women, words like “cheap”, “unprofessional”, “star fucker”, and “attention whore’” start cropping up without evidence or justification.  Co-workers take these digs to heart because they know that to keep their jobs, they have to agree with the boss, so after about three years in the business, practically every woman has some sort of scarlet letter on her.  It’s usually not true, but that doesn’t matter. You have to prove you’re “tough enough” by labouring under lies.

Similarly, racial minorities get labelled with stereotypes such as “lazy” and “aggressive”, even though they get just as much work done, just as politely, as anyone else.  Gay men get labelled “weak” or “overly-emotional” a lot.  Especially when they point out that they’re only being assigned stereotypically gay stories.  The thing that makes these tactics so toxic is that everyone makes mistakes, especially when you’re just starting out.  But there’s a difference between having a moment of laziness or unprofessional conduct, and having that be something that defines your character.  In essence, white, cisgendered, atheist men in Canadian media are allowed to make mistakes and learn.  Gay men are allowed to be the “right kind of gay”, but that’s it.  Everyone else?  A single mistake is an easy way to “prove” that there’s something inherently wrong with you.  Even taking off a non-Christian religious holiday can stall your career.

If you’re not male and a product of some British colonial upbringing, you’re easy to cut off at the knees.  “Professional” workplace conduct is conduct that makes white people comfortable when other cultures find it slimy and dishonest – as someone who grew up in an environment immersed in other cultures, I’ve had trouble with this disconnect my entire career: I look white, but I wasn’t socialized white.  So my script of right and wrong is not in keeping with the white-influenced Canadian media culture.  Services like the CBC are apparently so afraid of the multicultural realities of Canada that one of the most popular shows is British soap Coronation Street.  That’s the culture that cultivated Jian Ghomeshi.

Canadian media companies have a diversity mandate that only functions on paper.  The beauty standard is white, but the behaviour standard is whiter.  So the sweet spot in Canadian media is to look brown but act whiter than a lot of white people.

Ghomeshi milked that for millions of dollars, leveraging his minority status as a smoke screen to hide his bad acts.  At the same time, he leveraged the privileged position of being a well-spoken, apparently non-threatening man in Canadian media.  He sneered at men who were less erudite, and apparently collected a harem of women to secretly prop up the traditional masculinity he sacrificed on air for success.  He was living the leftist lie that allowed him to hide his textbook abusive behaviour for decades.

Abuse in Canadian media is so widespread that everyone has some story.  Get four female media personalities in a private room with drinks and the stories can fill hours.  It usually involves the same four or five dirtbags – male and female – but every so often you hear a new one about some hotshot star or executive who is just as bad.  The problem is that the very things that women in media are expected to do as part of our professional duties are used against us: provocative photo shoots, sexy on camera scenes, and daring evening gowns on red carpets are all used as “proof” that we’re just “looking for attention”.  Sex and sexuality are so demonized that it’s frequently used as a lever of control by manipulators like Jian Ghomeshi.  A guy like that gets so used to being peerless that he blames the women he mistreats for his own loneliness, and the encounters get rougher and more demeaning because the victimizer increasingly feels like the victim.

In my experience, even when you’re a woman in a position of relative power in Canadian media, you’re treated as “hysterical” if you insist on getting rid of someone for inappropriate conduct.  For reasons I can only guess at, employees who stopped being employees maintained a level of respect for the male authorities involved, but lashed out at the lone woman in the process – me.  Maybe it’s driven by the same core hatred of women that caused them to behave poorly in the first place, but I refuse to accept that this is at all normal male behaviour.  This is aberrant, and deserves to be treated as such.  The thing is that it’s so hard to fire someone with cause in Ontario that you never fire them for sexual harassment.  You eliminate their job, but you do so because they’re dirty pigs who are taking advantage despite being warned to stop.

Contrary to Jian Ghomeshi’s in-court assertions that workplaces should “not have any sexualized tone”, the reality is that media workplaces are inherently sexualized, and we’re supposed to be secure and grown up enough to respect people of all genders anyway.

What I love about working in the media is that you engage with people on a much deeper personal level than you would at a desk job.  You meet the most fascinating people, and you hear their stories.  You have to be secure enough in yourself that you can encounter new things, even new sexual proclivities, and not freak out, because the media is often on the bleeding edge of civil rights advocacy for LGBTQ people.  When you work in news, you also hear stories of abuse, see photos of assaults and murders, and you have to be strong enough to resist being eaten alive by that darkness, especially when children are involved.  Being able to trust your coworkers goes a long way in that regard – everyone has days when it just gets to them and they break, and you have to trust that your coworkers understand the struggle and won’t hold it over you.  That trust is precisely what a guy like Jian Ghomeshi and his enablers destroy.

I’m not at all surprised at Jian Ghomeshi’s clueless protestations that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.  His reality distortion field is still operational, if weakened some by public scrutiny, but this is far from the end of this tragedy.  You’d think that seeing a guy like Jian Ghomeshi brought low would bring some comfort to the people he hurt, but it doesn’t.  Careers were still destroyed, dreams were crushed on the altar of Ghomeshi’s ego, and not all of those will come back, despite what we now know.

The CBC rightly took away Ghomeshi’s power to bully his staff, but there are still people continuing that toxic legacy, and nothing less than a total overhaul of how the industry does business will stop a future Jian Ghomeshi-style scandal from happening.  Worse, countless people will be destroyed before some other predator becomes bold enough to get caught.  That’s the secret tragedy that will never get headlines.

You wonder why you don’t see more high ranking women in politics, and many media, business, and tech companies?  There’s probably at least one Ghomeshi in those companies, and at least five other people covering up for them.  They don’t just target women, but their attacks are most effective against women, because women don’t rise to CEO when some creep humps their ass at work and there’s nothing they can go to make it stop.  As it stands, there are too many creeps in the workforce like Jian Ghomeshi, and as much as it hurts women, these things hurt men too: all men should not be treated like predators because we’re terrible at stopping the real ones, but that’s the paradigm Jian Ghomeshi set.  The courts allowed him to say that he didn’t know that his absurd, demeaning, power trip behaviour was wrong.  Boys will be boys, right?  Nonsense.  Men know better.

(NOTE:  This article is NOT about the first trial that resulted in the not guilty verdict.  This is about a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CASE involving a different woman that was scheduled to go to trial in June.  Some commenters are confusing the cases.)

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Why Frank Cho’s Work is Feminist

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You may have noticed that there’s something of an ongoing brouhaha surrounding the work of comic book artist and writer Frank Cho. It seems every time he does something involving a woman these days, someone screams. It’s fashionable to label Frank a misogynist over some parody covers, but I know the guy, both personally and professionally, and the dude can be in a room full of naked women and keep his eyes on their faces unless there’s a punchline to be had.

I know this because I’ve actually been in a room with Frank involving multiple naked women. He was a guest on Ed and Red’s Night Party. We had him draw Dean, the pig character from Liberty Meadows, on a topless woman’s back. It was meta, get it? It’s also really damned hard to create art on a surface at isn’t flat, or even uniform.

Another funny, spur of the moment thing happened on that show. For the episode, I cosplayed Brandy from Liberty Meadows, and we got a “Beltsville” t-shirt screen printed from a place down the street. Unfortunately, said shirt was proportioned for a woman who was a B-cup, and when I put it on, the screen printed letters tore, leaving white marks wherever the shirt’s weave had caused a faultline. It looked like crap, so we turned it into content. We had Frank fill in the white parts of the letters with sharpie, because he was a “professional”.

This, it turned out, left black sharpie marks on the white bra I was wearing underneath the shirt, because the marker bled. Frank, being Frank, turned those spots into eyeballs, so that I could look back at guys staring at my chest.

That’s the Frank Cho I know: funny, clever, appreciative of other people’s work, and very much aware that women who look a certain way get treated like we don’t have faces.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to provide another side to the whole “Frank Cho is a misogynist” thing that isn’t just more angry shouting, but I just keep coming back to personal memories involving Frank and his work. I still remember the first time I saw a Liberty Meadows book, in Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles. I bought it because I’m a sucker for cartoon animals, but also because it was the story of a busty woman who had no idea how attractive she was, and the short nerdy vet who harboured a secret love for her.

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Brandy was like no other woman in comics I’d ever encountered. She wasn’t a superhero. She was goofy and klutzy. She was insecure about her weight. And she was in on the various zany jokes instead of being the typical killer of fun. Liberty Meadows was a combination of all the great parts of the Sunday funnies page without the horrible elements – the constant digs at Cathy in various Liberty Meadows strips showed that I wasn’t alone in my annoyance at that level of female neurosis.

Liberty Meadows was elegant, silly, smart, and fun. It was a comic strip that allowed its female lead to be beautiful, flawed, slapstick, smart and fun all at the same time, and that was something I desperately needed as a woman trying to find my place in television comedy. Throughout my career, I have run into various brick walls because most media properties don’t allow women to be all these things at once. In fact, it’s usually a paradigm of “Smart, glamorous, or funny. Pick two.” Call it the “Big Bang Triangle” if you will. Penny is funny and and object of desire, but she’s a waitress when everyone else is a scientist. Amy, on the other hand, is funny and smart, but dressed deliberately dumpy. Bernadette, similarly, has an affected voice and thick glasses so that she’s not TOO pretty, or TOO smart, because she plays up the funny. The media considers it unfeminine if a woman is TOO MUCH.

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Frank Cho doesn’t sacrifice a woman’s beauty or sexuality for intelligence or the ability to take part in comedy, and I love him for that. His parody covers are continuing his tradition in this regard, and people who claim they’re misogynist are just flat out wrong. If anything, they’re poking fun at how freaked out our society gets over boobs. Try living with a gigantic pair: you realize how absurd it is the first time you get smacked in the face with your own breast. Yes. This has happened to me more than once.

Feminism isn’t about protecting women from the big bad world or putting us on an unnatural pedestal.  Feminism is about equality between men and women.  So essentially, if Deadpool is allowed to do it, some female character should have license to do it too.

Men are allowed to be naked, loud and obscene for the sake of comedy. Look at South Park, Family Guy, and Seth Rogan’s stuff. Frank Cho is one of the few creators out there who dares to let women be the star in that kind of comedy, instead of the disapproving wife/mom or the object of sexual conquest. Frank draws women who laugh at themselves, and the ridiculousness of the current nerd paradigm, without making these women seem like the kind of women the world laughs at too. He gives us license to laugh at ourselves in a world that conspires to tear down our self esteem.

And if that isn’t progressive; if that isn’t FEMINIST; I don’t know what is.

(PS: if this article does well enough, I’ll tell the behind the scenes story of where those pics of Frank signing my butt came from.)

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The problem with the godless worship of fantasy traditions in Game of Thrones

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(Note: this article references sexual assault.)

(Another note: the reference to The Lord of The Rings in this article are about the BOOK, not the films.  The films portray characters radically differently.)

I just read an article about why Game of Thrones is now nearly unwatchable.  I never found the plots or writing terribly compelling.  The show hauled along based on fantastic acting and really great sets and wardrobe.  It’s nihilistic eye-candy masquerading as “smart” television.  Misery is too often substituted for good storytelling.

The thing is, fantasy stories tend to get hauled down into that muck, because they all loop back to a desire to keep replicating J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic dark medievalist fantasy setting in The Lord of the Rings.  The only “innovations” in this template are how many characters get killed, and now that women are involved, how many of them get raped.

The Lord of the Rings is far from a perfect book.  It’s slow, overly reliant on exposition, and a host to flat, wooden characters and a lot of ponderous Christian metaphor… that is to say that Christian metaphor is not inherently ponderous, but Aragorn prattling on about Kingsfoil is unnecessarily long.

The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is revered among fantasy writers, so few dare to disrupt its various core formulas to tell a better story.  Video games are much better at reassembling the component parts of Tolkien, but that’s thanks to Ed Greenwood’s detour through the Forgotten Realms.  Greenwood infused humour, colour, and a pantheon of gods into Tolkien’s staunchly monotheistic fantasy, and it was made more human in the process.

The Forgotten Realms also supported a gamified system that forced narrative cohesion.  In other words, because the entire idea is for a group of players to fight monsters together, it sidestepped the other major narrative pitfall that’s rooted in The Lord of the Rings — The “Shattering of the Fellowship” device.

The Fellowship of the Ring ends up splitting into two main groups: the group that stands with Aragorn to fight the war, and the smaller group that goes with Frodo to destroy the ring.  Tolkien’s status as the child of a Catholic convert is critical to understanding some of the content of The Lord of the Rings, because of the way Catholicism treats femininity as a passive, hidden power which is often treated as a vessel sacrificed to a male deity.

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There are no female members of the Fellowship, and the bearer of the feminine ring symbol is Frodo.  The Lord of the Rings is a story of a war won through the resurrection of a masculine symbol — the sword Narsil/Anduril — and the destruction of the feminine symbol, the One Ring.  The One Ring’s powers mimic the Western monotheistic view of the sacred feminine: a mysterious negative space which gains the ring bearer hidden knowledge at the expense of his rational faculties.  Exposure to the One Ring makes a person more emotional and dependent, which were both qualities associated with femininity in Tolkien’s time.  The One Ring is even associated with a hidden member of the Fellowship — Gollum — Gollum is the one who actually destroys the One Ring, sacrificing himself in the process, because Frodo can’t do it himself.  Frodo is a biblical passive hero in the tradition of Isaac and Moses.  These passive males transfer divinity through them to the people, but they don’t take active steps themselves.  Isaac is bound.  Moses is given the tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But Isaac is such a passive figure that his father’s slave needed to find him a wife, and Moses was such a poor speaker that his brother Aaron did his talking for him.  This is symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by Sam and Gollum doing the heavy lifting for Frodo, who, like Moses and Isaac, were weakened by the burden of inherent divinity, just as mothers are said to be.

The actual women of The Lord of The Rings are similarly passive figures gifted with innate power or wisdom… with the exception of one woman, Eowyn, who assumes the role of a man to fight in the war.  While many of us see Eowyn as pretty badass, Tolkien himself described Eowyn’s transformation as a tragedy.  In fact, he saw it as an inherent tragedy of war that women had to assume male roles.

So how does this impact Game of Thrones, but NOT the Forgotten Realms branch of fantasy that inspired video game RPGs?  While Ed Greenwood took the step of making the sacred feminine of Toril an active voice, George R. R. Martin stuck with the theme of war and the destruction of the feminine.  Accordingly, there’s a lot less rape in Faerun than there is in Westeros.

In both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire is associated with the masculine — men “run hot”, women are a cooler force.  The other name for Aragorn’s sword “Anduril” is “The Flame of the West”.  This is likely because the Seraphim and the Rider on the White Horse who leads the armies of God in the Bible are flame bearers.

There is no definitive ice queen in The Lord of the Rings, in part because the book is inherently sexless.  But in the Game of Thrones, we of course have the icy Cersei Lannister, who is also sexually dysfunctional and cunning — emotionally more “like a man” than the “purer” female characters.   She is, of course, eventually subject to her own “slut walk of shame” as a form of politicized “atonement theatre” for her sexual misdeeds.

That sort of thing isn’t normalized in Faerun, because Greenwood and Gary Gygax hard wired gender equality into the game system and game world.  Essentially, in Dungeon and Dragons, women are equal participants, not some embodiment of the sacred or profane feminine.  In The Lord of the Rings, there is no profane feminine, and in Game of Thrones, nothing is sacred and no woman is inviolate; women are rendered impure even by their own periods.  Both of these omissions are weaknesses that The Forgotten Realms do not share.

tyrionBecause relegating women to passive or perverse forces in fantasy creates weak points, Game of Thrones has fractured now that its characters are scattered.  Martin and the show’s writers fractured a Fellowship that never existed.  Without the Christian symbolism allowing the narrative to thin out without shattering, Game of Thrones has scattered into a collection of parts with little significance.  The Frodo of the show, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t feminized.  He’s a “half man”, but still a man — bearded, sexual, and capable of violence.  The feminine in Game of Thrones is symbolized by menstruation, manipulations, and rapes, not rings, leaves, light and shadow.

These are legitimate artistic choices on HBO’s part, but it’s left Game of Thrones without symbolism tying the narrative together the way Frodo’s ring and Aragorn’s sword stopped Tolkien’s epic from flying apart.  The lack of a yin and yang in Game of Thrones implies that George Martin borrowed the R. R. from J. R. R. Tolkien without really understanding what pulled the masterpiece out of Tolkien’s flaws.  Game of Thrones lacks the spark of the divine that allowed The Lord of the Rings to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Don’t freak out, atheists, I’m referring to divinity as a narrative device here, not a literal god.  Divinity in fiction is the theme or narrative glue that makes the plot points resonate, and Game of Thrones says little beyond “people, when given power, are terrible to each other”.  It’s fictionalized historical treatise, not an allegory of an idea.

Where The Forgotten Realms took Tolkien and added girls and jokes, A Song of Ice and Fire took Tolkien and removed the mythic and sacred.  Therefore, there’s nothing left when innocence and people die, because Game of Thrones fails its saving throw against fatalism.

(EDIT: I removed the marijuana joke because it offended some people and I determined it was an unnecessary distraction that had nothing to do with the main point.  Typos also corrected.)

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The sorry state of gender in gaming in one photo from Destructoid

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Imagine if four female cosplayers were photographed in costumes that were essentially underwear at PAX East.  Jessica Nigri was wearing more when she was the subject of a scandal.

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Not only is Jessica more covered in both these images than the men in question, but she’s obviously put more time, more care, and more conscious thought into her costumes.  They fit better, and she’s better groomed.  But she’s considered lewd, while the guys are considered “fun” or “silly”.

This double standard — that men are allowed to be “harmlessly” nearly naked — and women aren’t?  THAT IS SEXISM IN THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY.

Note that the dude on the right is dangerously close to a testicular wardrobe malfunction.

I have no issue with the top photo on its own.  But I am bothered by the fact that female gamers can’t have this sort of fun without risking the wrath of the internet descending on them.

We need the same standards for men and women in all things in gaming.  Period.  PAX East just failed the He-Man and She-Ra test.

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The Toxic Practice of “Gatedropping”

There’s a continuing practice in some articles about “harassment in gaming” that is… I’m gonna go there… Toxic.  I’m referring to the practice of “Gatedropping” — referencing Gamergate in an otherwise unrelated article because it’s a “current event” in “current year”.

Gamergate, is, of course, a hashtag everyone likes to claim is about something else.  For some it’s about ethics in games journalism.  For others it’s about a culture war. For still others it’s about combating harassment.  And yes, for some, it’s about perfect conditions to troll for massive lulz.

There was also a cadre of political opportunists that raised the temperature on Gamergate much higher than it had to be.  Games journalists were an easy target for some e-celebs’ unwitting personal armies.  Other untrained “anti-harassment advocates” seem most skilled at advocating for media attention for themselves instead of their issue.  In the end, the gaming industry was temporarily left a less hospitable place for women, not because some gamers got angry, but because anyone who attempted to take a proactive stance got targeted by some special interest group.

Gaming is still nursing the wounds from the Jack Thompson era in the 1990s.  When I tried to ask Ed Boon about violence in video games, a Warner Bros publicist shut me down.  When I pitch alternate viewpoints to  the established narrative in services like the New York Times, I’m met with deafening silence.  When I try to point to scientific consensus and free speech rights, activists have some outlier study or biased poll ready to be brandished like Oppo Research.

Freelancing as a game journalist is less lucrative these days than unpaid internships.  Freelancing is frequently a pay to work paradigm where the measly bits of money you get paid never really cover your costs.  The reality is that, except in a minority of circumstances, games journalism isn’t seen as valuable enough to really pay for.  It’s satisfactory for monetized websites to get by on a churn of content via regurgitated press releases.

Gamergate had some positive impacts in that regard — the Society for Professional Journalists has taken an interest in games journalism, founding the Kunkel Award.  The SPJ has probably been the fairest handler of the Gamergate controversy, because it believes in reporting the story before offering an opinion on that story.

As an analyst, however, it’s my job to offer my informed opinion, and my opinion at present is that continuing to mention Gamergate in any article about a woman in video games is dehumanizing that woman by turning her into a statistic instead of telling her story.  But worse, it’s turning gamers into gremlins, instead of remembering that gamers are not trolls.  Gamers are people.

The latest round of Gatedropping has been the Alison Rapp/Nintendo scandal, and the brouhaha over an anti-bullying initiative called Social Autopsy.  I haven’t written about Social Autopsy here because I have not been able to get a response from its organizers.  Apparently they’ve been so deluged on social media that they’re unable to get back to people.  Though they did an interview with, of all things, a website with a direct connection to a troll group, I’ll take Social Autopsy at its word that it’s missing requests, including my own request for further details on their methodology, as well as their decision to agree to an interview by a known bully.  I’m not naming that bully here because this particular bully thrives on attention, and I won’t give them that.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have to comment on Social Autopsy: the service isn’t live yet, I have no informed access, and it has nothing to do with gaming, gamers, or Gamergate.  The link has been made between Social Autopsy and Gamergate because special interests wished that to be so, including a competing initiative that claims to fight online harassment..  Competing services are not neutral third parties, for obvious reasons.

I get why a lot of people are worried that Social Autopsy is too close to a dox site or a blackmail site for comfort.  I don’t have an fully formed opinion on this, however, because to quote Sherlock Holmes, “Data!  I can’t make bricks without clay.”

What I do know based on their blog posts is that Social Autopsy’s creators are not informed or even aware of the details of video game community scandals.  Nor should they be.  Gaming doesn’t own the cyberbullying issue, despite all the politicized attempts to make “gamer” synonymous with “harasser”.  It seems like Social Autopsy is most concerned with people who know each other in real life who decide to go Jekyll and Hyde on the internet.  They’ve said they’re not connecting real life names and information shared on social media with online pseudonyms, and until I’m given reason to believe otherwise, I’ll take them at their word.

Naming and shaming hasn’t been an especially effective tactic regarding bullying in the video game community, since it tends to become a tool of bullies who falsify “evidence” and twist words.  According to these name and shame tactics, I’m a bully.  But according to these name and shame tactics, it’s also okay to publish unflattering photos and nasty comments about my mother and husband and claim these photos were used under”fair use” internet principles, ignoring a private person’s rights of publicity.

In other applications, however, outing bullies has had some success has a harm reduction strategy, but tougher laws based on this principle have run afoul of free speech protections.  Free speech, however, applies to services like Social Autopsy having the right to make their attempt, provided they stay within the bounds of what is legal.  So-called “pro-Gamergate” advocates have this same right.

I’ve had practically every nasty thing under the sun said about me on the internet, and I’m still here, albeit as something of a pariah in the games industry.  Bullying works, because bullying makes people who are “minding their own business” afraid to be around a “controversial” figure.  Most of what was said and done to and about me has been 100% legal, because the media is a bloodsport.  Some of it wasn’t legal, and got taken down.  Some things were legal simply because the defamer had more money than I did, and it’s a sad reality that you can buy justice in a legal system driven by lawyers’ fees.

But the point is that I’m still here.  I’m still trying.  And I’m still talking.  And I won’t give up my right to express my views as long as I’m willing to accept the consequences of those views.  I’ll also defend to the death the right of any other person to express their views, even if I disagree with them.  This goes for services like Social Autopsy whom I disagree with, and this goes for people on both sides of the video game culture war with whom I have profound disagreements.

Only one side, however, has become synonymous with evil, and I have a problem with that.  It’s regressive politics at its worst.  Therefore, Gatedropping helps no one, and writers and editors should stop doing it.

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