A lot of what goes on in comics outside the actual books tends to go over my head. I stay off of message boards, avoid getting into arguments, and at cons, I just seek out who I want to meet, have dinner with my friends, and go to bed early.
But lately, there are more and more things going on that I can’t ignore. There’s a lot of issues that need to be faced – racism, ageism, censorship, a list that would take a dozen more editorials to fully cover – but one that has come to the forefront recently is the issue of harassment of women in comics.
Last month, some ugly, ugly reports came out of New York Comic-Con (NYCC). Here’s one of the best reports on it. There was the usual dose of pandering, scantily-clad models and advertising, but the worst was a camera crew for a public access show that asked deeply inappropriate questions of female attendees – with incidents being reported even after complaints were made to con security.
Any hopes that this was an isolated incident were washed away in the wake of the show, as numerous female comics fans and professionals began coming forward with their own tales of harassment – not just from creeping convention attendees, but from professionals within the industry itself.
There’s this story. And this story. And this story. And this story. This one just came to my attention today. And..well, probably many, many more that I’m unaware of because I’m not actually that good at using Tumblr or other social media.
Even uglier, many of these women who’ve spoken out have been lambasted for doing so, using language I’m not comfortable repeating here.
These tales of harassment are, put bluntly, unacceptable. The reaction to them is even less acceptable.
Now, as you might have noticed from the headline, I’m a guy. What qualifies me to talk about harassment?
Well, there’s two things. First, when I mentioned I wanted to explore this issue on Facebook, a female friend of mine who helped out at NC Comicon (a Durham, NC show based near me that issued a strict non-harassment policy in the wake of NYCC reports) said that she wanted to see a guy talk about this issue.
“Honestly, the sad thing is that men talking about representation in media is more likely to lend it legitimacy, and make the topic a ‘real’ issue to the people otherwise most likely to write it off,” she said.
That’s depressing, though I also saw her point. I don’t think things should be this way, but if it’s the case, I want to help the cause by acknowledging the problem, and my own culpability.
I think it’s lousy that women who speak out about harassment are often denounced and harassed all the further by coming forward, but I do think it’s important to offer support and understanding.
Secondly…I can’t say that I’ve ever groped a girl or tried to play “casting couch,” but the stories recounted here have reminded me of incidents where I’ve told an off-color joke or gotten in the face some woman I just met at a con with non-stop babbling when really, she just wanted to get away and get on with her show. I’ve only later realized or was told by a well-meaning friend how uncomfortable I was making these women.
Now, I wasn’t trying to be malicious, and I’ve tried to speak out against some of the unrealistic depictions of female sexuality in comics, but there have been times I’ve made women uncomfortable, and those incidents have made me part of the problem.
For that, I’m sorry.
I cop to these mistakes, to mistakes I didn’t realize I made in the past, and I will try to be more mindful of how I might be making other people feel in the future. And I also want to be more alert of how people around me might be treating others, and am ready to jump in if something untoward might be going on.
That’s the best I know to offer. It might not be enough, but I hope it’s a start.
I can also pretty much 100% guarantee that I will do or say something hugely inappropriate in the future, possibly even later today. That’s because I’m human, and part of being human is making mistakes. But another part is taking responsibility for those mistakes, and using them as a guide to your actions in the future.
I’ve tried to imagine how awful a comic book convention would be for me if I was groped, or jeered for being overweight. I think of all the great times I’ve had at these shows, all the friends I’ve made. Meeting people who shared my interests, my passion for the art form, even similar career goals in the industry offered me a sense of support and camaraderie that got me through some rough times in my life.
The idea that someone could have that sense of support violated at a place that’s supposed to be about coming together and celebrating the community of comics…that’s hateful to me. There’s no other word for it.
Forget those gawdawful stereotypes of slack-jawed geeks paralyzed by a pretty girl setting foot into a comic shop. This is about the sense of entitlement, resentment, objectification and worse that has helped alienate women, who represent 50 PERCENT OF ALL THE HUMAN BEINGS ON EARTH, from becoming part of fandom, or staying in the industry.
How many women have shied away from fandom because of this treatment? How many who could have contributed something great to the industry chose another path because of how they were treated? And most importantly – how much guts has it taken for those who have stayed part of fandom and the industry to hang in there in the face of this mistreatment?
(And while it’s necessary for a piece like this, the friend I talked to for this piece also made a note that terms like “female creators” and “female fans” are often used in a way that makes it seem like they are something separate. “A lot of problems arise from viewing women as secondary versions of what men are in the industry – ‘female creators’ and ‘female fans’ – so there’s a mental pass to treat them differently than just ‘creators’ and ‘fans,’” she said.
(That’s a whole new series of issues, but though I’ve enjoyed many times when female creators have come together for a book or a panel discussion, it’s important that their presence be viewed as an overcoming of viewing them as “other,” not some strange and exotic novelty. Of course, it’d be equally nice to see phrases like “black creators” or “Asian creators” just be folded into “creators” as well, but again – another editorial. End digression.)
The bad news is, this has been going on for decades with too many people turning a blind eye. The good news is, things can change. They have before. And they can again.
I’ve seen great changes in the comic book industry over the past decade. There are more books for all ages, and better books, than I can remember at any point in my life. Kids are going to cons with their parents, and both generations are fans. I love my dad, but a begrudging, “are you ready to go home yet?” was the best I could have expected growing up (I eventually got him hooked on Concrete).
Countless great works from past decades have come back into print. Aging creators have been given support and dignity through the likes of the Hero Initiative. And there is a renaissance of creativity in hard-copy comics and online, along with a renewed interest in original concepts from creators and fans alike. People are making things more than ever, and showing support for fellow fans and creators like never before. That is astonishing. That is the sign of a vibrant and vital community.
But there are still problems – problems that we have to face. And as much as I wonder how much I’ve been a part of these problems, I also know that there is the power to change.
I don’t know that what I’ve said here has helped. But I do know this: Admitting there is a problem, and not just ignoring it or brushing it under the rug, is the first step toward making things better.
Guys – no matter if you’re a fan or a pro, we’re better than this. I’m not saying treat women like delicate flowers where you agonize over everything you do or say for the sake of political correctness. But I am saying to be mindful of their feelings, and to take responsibility for your actions.
And I encourage readers, from all walks, to share their own stories, whether it’s in our comments or elsewhere. People will only listen if you speak up. I applaud the bravery of those who have already come forward, and for those who will speak up in the future.
Comics are an amazing medium, and the community of comics can truly be a great place of friendship and togetherness.
Let’s make it better.
I prefer my TV super-positive. I have difficulty watching things I know to be violent, dark, depressing, etc.
And yet, I am endlessly sucked in by LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.
SVU, as it’s commonly known, is currently in its 15th season of busting rapists, pedophiles and miscellaneous, vaguely-sexually-related criminals. It has hung onto its original cast for a remarkably long time, though it finally seems to be moving on — co-lead Christopher Meloni departed three seasons back (possibly because he realized he had busted every pervert in New York — the state, not the city), while Richard Belzer’s oft-crossed-over Detective Munch recently retired and Dann Florek’s Capt. Cragen from the original L&O (“the mothership”) is following suit.
Ice-T will still likely be around to express disbelief at whatever commonly-known perverse act they’ve encountered this week:
SVU’s run continuously on NBC since 1999, but its greatest contribution to the public consciousness is the reruns on USA, one of the few cable channels I still get. There are, to my counting, an average of four SVU marathons per week, not counting how a marathon from the earlier part of the day will get rerun in late night. As John Mulaney points out in the above stand-up act, this provides an excuse for all manner of horrifying violent sex acts to be described at three in the afternoon. Occasionally, USA blanks out some saucier language, but overall, it’s okay because we’re only TOLD about the horrific acts, not SHOWN them, and the bad guys either get caught or shot to death or something.
The network seems vaguely aware of how absurd it is that such a violent, horrifying show is practically their flagship, particularly now that they need to use it to plug more holes in their schedule with MONK and BURN NOTICE having concluded their runs. Marathons are based around the most random themes possible (the most recent one was “What would B.D. do?” after the exposition-providing shrink played by B.D. Wong), and commercials have taken on a self-referential air, with the announcer pointing out that the most important thing in SVU is to “never crack a smile” or tourists to NYC getting directions from locals who recall locations based on where a dismembered corpse was found in a particular episode.
With USA recently acquiring reruns of MODERN FAMILY, there have been a series of commercials joking about how those shows have plenty in common. I’m more worried about young viewers who tune in for a mini-marathon about to start and get the end of some episode with a blood-covered stab-victim. A recent marathon featured all guest stars who went on to be on MODERN FAMILY, which could have resulted in even more confusion.
As you can tell, I’ve been sucked into these marathons. An episode ends, and another one literally begins right after — they reduce the credits to near-microscopic size during the thrilling finale of each ep, so once you see “EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DICK WOLF” and hear the NBC/Universal tone, you immediately hear a new, “In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous…”
It’s gotten to where I see a rerun of THE OFFICE or 30 ROCK and hear that tone at the end, I have the Pavlovian reaction of starting to utter, “in the criminal justice system…”
The self-contained nature of each episode makes it easy to get sucked in. There’s almost always a bizarre, recognizable guest star: Zack Morris from SAVED BY THE BELL! Jerry Lewis (not playing a rapist, thank god)! Luke Perry! Melissa Joan Hart! Ludacris, who actually did a pretty good job! It’s enough to get your attention and carry you through to the end of the episode, at which point, as I’ve said, another begins.
Wikipedia episode guides have let me place most of the USA-rerun episodes in a period from seasons 6-12. That’s a run longer than most “regular” shows, but there’s enough turnover in the writing styles of SVU that this period is particularly notable for the sheer number of gonzo plotlines.
The first season of SVU was an attempt to do a slightly-more-personal version of the “mothership” show, with more inter-office subplots and such. By season 2, they’d retooled, added Ice-T and glasses-wearing ADA Stephanie March, and made it more of a bizarre, twisty procedural.
There were some crazed eps in that run — I’ll never forget, no matter how hard I try, the one that starts with a Michael Jackson-esque toy shop owner and somehow ends with Cindy Williams from LAVERNE & SHIRLEY faking her granddaughter’s cancer with mercury poisoning — but by those later seasons, there was a distinct sense that the writers were out of ideas, not only for the overall show, but within individual episodes.
While earlier episodes have a weirdly compelling quality as you start to realize just how awful the secrets of the guest stars of the week are (there’s a reason possible killer Chad Lowe is so terrified of mother Margot Kidder!), later episodes have the quality of, “This isn’t shocking enough, so let’s throw in a TWIST!” This TWIST! factor has the unique quality of causing the episodes to forget what they’re about, sometimes within the first few minutes.
The example I keep using is “Avatar,” from Season 9. Cold open: A woman is sexually assaulted by her sister/roommate’s finance. But wait! It turns out he has a sleep disorder and doesn’t remember doing it!
This plot is then completely forgotten as it turns out the sister is missing, and she had a secret life in a Second Life online community analogue, and then it turns out she was stalked by a convicted kidnapper (Kevin Tighe, Locke’s dad on LOST!) whose victim was never found, and then they figure out where she is when they realize the kidnapper has a cabin in his virtual world, and they can triangulate the location based on the angle of the sun, and you have Det. Benson literally yelling at the community’s webmaster, “A woman’s LIFE IS AT STAKE! TURN ON THE SUN!”
For good measure, it turns out the original kidnapping victim was still alive and in love with the kidnapper and hiding out at the cabin, so to end the ep on a maximum down note, he sees her again at the end and goes, horrified, “You got OLD.”
Holy God, you cannot believe how disgusted I am with myself for not only watching but remembering this, now that I’ve recapped it.
The show has, during these years, a real tendency to take something vaguely realistic and twist it into…something else. The infamous crime where a fake cop called in to a fast-food restaurant and convinced the manager to torment an employee was turned into a riveting, skin-crawling drama in the film COMPLIANCE. A few years before, SVU did an ep on it…which somehow turned into being about Robin Williams as an anti-authority mastermind who puts Det. Benson in a morality-questioning deathtrap.
The original point was somewhat blurred, though Williams did get an Emmy nod out of it. I Googled.
Aside from procrastination and living alone, why on Earth do I keep getting sucked into SVU episodes? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times.
Here’s how I’ve broken it down:
1) There aren’t many other scripted shows on during the day. Whether it’s morning, noon or late at night, it’s at least something that has a plot.
2) There’s a brisk pace — from the constantly-moving camera during the scenes where one cop after another provides needed exposition to the L&O trademark “CHUNG! CHUNG!” blackout title cards from scene to scene, the show moves. You rarely have time to get bored before some new lurid detail comes to the surface.
3) And as I’ve said above: Morbid curiosity. Where is this going to go? What insane TWIST! will occur next? And can you randomly figure out which season this episode is from based on such factors as the ADA, the storytelling style, or just the length of Marsika Hargitay’s hair? (It’s shoulder-length Season One, short and butch for most of the middle seasons, then gradually gets longer again starting at about Season 11).
More recently, I’ve found myself increasingly wary of the the show’s “reality,” TWIST!s aside. The cartoonist Dean Trippe did an excellent comic called “Something Terrible” (you can download it here) that deals with his own sexual assault as a child. Almost as horrific as the event was that Trippe had, from constant plots on TV shows, been convinced that because of this, he would become like his attacker as an adult, and was afraid to be around children for years as an adult. He later found out this wasn’t the case.
You’d get a different impression if you watched SVU. The closest I’d seen to their explaining that victims of childhood sexual abused DON’T grow up to become pedophiles was one episode with Michael Shannon (who’s been the creepy guy in pretty much everything else he’s been in), who’s been afraid of being around his baby son because of that fear, the result of his being molested by his coach as a child…and it’s later explained that the coach was himself molested, and another of the kids DID become a pedo himself as an adult.
It ends with Shannon realizing he is a good person and finally able to let himself be with his son, but how many inaccurate, manipulative stereotypes have been put forth because of that story?
Yes, I need to ween myself off this.
The show has, in its post Meloni/Stabler years, been run by Warren Leight, an L&O veteran who more recently ran the excellent cable dramas IN TREATMENT and LIGHTS OUT. Leight is an intelligent, cerebral writer, and the episodes under his reign the show has toned down the insane twists to tell relatively straightforward tales of professional men and women who battle human monsters, and the toll it takes on them.
It’s not nearly as much fun. And immediately after typing that, I realize I’ve just used “fun” to describe a show about rapists and pedophiles.
Still — they had Cybill Shepherd in a story that basically redid the Trayvon Martin case with Paula Deen as the shooter! And it was played straight! If you’re going to do some ridiculous mash-up of a distasteful celebrity story and one of the most tragic miscarriages of American justice in recent years, how can you expect people to take it seriously?
(Though to their credit: The brilliant stage actor Raul Esparza is the current ADA, and his dry, irate presence is worth tuning in for, even when he’s in a deathly-contrived take on the Anthony Wiener scandal.)
As with most bits of junk TV, the easiest way to detox is to spend the time wasted watching it doing things that are productive and pro-social. I might have to resort to that for SVU, particularly with a new year coming up and not much TV on during those winter months.
Still, it’ll take a long time for those words to get out of my head: “In the criminal justice system…”
CHUNG! CHUNG! indeed.