Monday, March 21, 2016

Martin Tenbones vs Army of Dorkness

Neil Gaiman, on Twitter:
The panels at the link come from A Game of You, one of the little sidebar miniseries in The Sandman. In contrast to many of the other characters in the run, the cheerleader-type blonde protagonist was what the kids these days are calling a "normie": a plain-vanilla citizen. No spider collection, no multicolored hair, no ancient immortal who sits down to drink tea with emperors. Just a regular girl with a regular life. Well, she is incubating an otherdimensional entity in a fragment of her dreams, a chunk of which escapes into the waking world in the form of a giant talking dog that gets shot by the NYPD, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, Barbie is a Regular Girl, and by using a Regular Girl, Gaiman gets to deliver what I thought at the time to be a particularly nasty barb to comic shop owners. Namely, that their places were inimical to girls.

I thought it was a nasty barb, and my first reaction was that it was a strange thing for Gaiman, who was writing under the fledgling Vertigo property of DC at the time to paint this gruesome caricature of a comics proprietor. It seemed like shitting where one eats, so to speak. But then I've never been a girl in a comic shop. And in 1997, I have to admit, I did know more than one comic shop that, were I a girl, I would have thought twice before entering.

I sort of understand how it could happen, too. My economics training tells me that there's a pretty big premium to be paid if you want to alienate a market segment as large as "all women" so therefore, we shouldn't expect to see nasty, unkempt, leering clerks very often. But on the other hand, there are men who have been on the receiving end of contempt from women their whole lives, and developing a carapace of misogyny is one way of coping with that. Comics and roleplaying games occasionally provide a refuge for these sorts of guys, since they're traditionally boys' pursuits. If girls loathe you, go where the girls aren't. Right?

But then something happened. Some of what happened was Gaiman himself. Girls started liking comics in a big way. Sandman had something like 60% female readership. The relative price of running a sour-smelling, female-hostile comic shop increased dramatically. Shop owners who were unwilling to cater to the new customers lost a lot of business. So you'd expect shops like these to be dinosaurs, relics of a bygone era.

Apparently not. His followers began tweeting sordid tales of how some places have gotten worse, as if the no-girls-allowed sensibility has overtaken the remorseless economics. That should be worrying. There's something in the culture that has some men so badly alienated that they're leaving sales on the table in an industry that hasn't been a guaranteed moneymaker since Michael Keaton was Batman.

I occasionally think there's a larger malaise out there and a lot of this stuff: gamergate, Trump, Sad Puppies, this comic shop thing... I think these all might be symptoms of the same underlying problem. I'm not sure what the ultimate cause is, but even if the source can be accurately identified, I'm not convinced that there is an easy or cheap solution.


  1. There's a common thread that runs between gamergate, sad puppies, racefail, etc. In each case you've got some nerdy art genre, like science fiction, or comic books, or video games, that had zero social cachet. Then, for whatever reason the audience gets a lot bigger. Nerd art has gotten so big it's taken over most of pop culture. And since it's so much bigger, it suddenly starts mattering to the wider culture in ways it never did before. So the apex predators of the culture war show up. Nerds freak out, react in all kinds of overexcited ways, and the Queen of the Jungle rips them to shreds.

    There are a some historical and emotional dynamics that contribute to the toxicity.

    1) A history of censorship.

    Nerds lean libertarian. Especially on free speech issues. And people have shown up before trying to dictate what genre artists are allowed to say.

    People remember the comic book code. They remember Jack Thompson and Tipper Gore. Genre fans are on a hair trigger to freak out about censorship.

    But all the censorship threats in the past have come from the right. So the libertarian nerds and the leftist nerds were united. The would-be censors of today come from the left, so nerds are split.

    2) Nerds hate politics.

    People don't retreat into video games or comics to escape from women, they do it to escape from politics. People often get interested in nerdy pursuits in middle school or high school when all their peers are playing this cutthroat status game of coolness and popularity. Nerds are bad at that game, they know they'll lose every time, so they don't want to play.

    Fandoms provided a space where nerds felt safe and protected from that stuff. Where they were all just there to share enthusiasm and excitement over something, and nobody was going to get thrown out or ostracized because they fail at some political game that they don't even understand.

    Then Anita Sarkeesian shows up and starts calling everyone misogynist basement-dwelling neckbeards and calling all the games sexist and it's like the Mean Girls from your middle school and Jack Thompson all rolled into one. It pushes all the wrong buttons. Nerds go apeshit.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?