Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pickup artist

Very early this morning, I woke up and was unable to get back to sleep. I generally wasn't feeling well. So I looked at Facebook for a bit as a diversion, and read a discussion in which some guy was attempting to make his anti-feminist case and praised PUA (Pick-Up Artist) culture while doing it.

I nearly waded in, but suddenly an idea occurred to me of what else "Pickup Artist" could mean. I thought about how pleasant it would be if that were the only meaning of that term. And then I just had to try and depict it. So that's the story behind this drawing:

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Beyond Boobs n' Butts

The creator of a fictional character can make that character what the creator wants.  Obvious, right? If you're an author or an artist (or both), and you invent a character to be in the story you tell, you can make that character look and behave however you see fit. The only limits are in your imagination. That's an amazing power indeed.

And with great power comes....yeah, yeah, you saw this coming: great responsibility. This power and responsibility have belonged to every storyteller since people started to tell stories, and continue to do so as the methods of storytelling have changed.  It seems like everywhere you look, the conversation is taking place about how women are depicted in the forms of storytelling known as "comics" and "video games," and this blog is no exception. But I didn't want to just keep rehashing the point, so after those two posts I pretty much only commented when there was a new development on the subject that I actually knew something about.

Or, in this case, something made the point particularly well. That something is Buzzfeed's article We Had Women Photoshopped Into Stereotypical Comic Book Poses And It Got Weird, in which female Buzzfeed writers tried to emulate the pose of a female superhero in a specific image, and....failed miserably. And then in an attempt to help them along, their pictures were Photoshopped to make them look like the superheroines.

Here's the video:

It reminds me of fantasy author Jim C. Hines' hilarious photo shoots of himself posing as the featured female character on the covers of various fantasy novels.  In addition to just being awesome, those photos were intended to show a) how a man would look adopting the same pose and wearing the same kinds of outfits as the women were, and b) how uncomfortable it would be for him to do so. In case readers dismissed this discomfort based on Hines' age/gender/non-martial artist nature, he linked to a female martial artist/contortionist who had similar findings.

The Buzzfeed women, on the other hand, were primarily showing how for comic book heroines a) the poses are highly difficult to impossible, and b) the bodies themselves are impossible.  If you've ever looked at the Escher Girls blog, you're very familiar with this.  You might even know that the most popular highly-difficult-to-impossible (hereafter referred to simply as "impossible") pose is the classic "Boobs and Butt," in which the female character manages to turn both breasts and her ass to the "camera" simultaneously, often in a way that suggests her spine is made of rubber and/or some or all internal organs have been removed.
Boobs n' Butt example 1

Kristin, one of the Buzzfeed writers who took part in this horrifying experiment, describes the B&B pose this way:
Unless you completely lack object permanence, you can deal with not seeing both boobs and butt at the same time. Like, give readers some credit: When a character turns around, it’s not like we all go “BUT WHERE DID THE BOOBS GO? ARE THE BOOBS GONE FOREVER? I NEED ASSURANCES THAT THERE ARE STILL BOOBS HERE.” In fact, the only people who actually think this way are real-life babies, and they can’t read comics, anyway!
You know the typical policy of not reading the comments on internet articles?  This is an example of an article for which that is especially the case. Readers accused the women who took part in the creation of this article of having "body issues." They accused them of trying to "ruin comics." They claimed that hey, it's the same for men, man!  They just outright made fun of the Buzzfeed writers' appearance, calling them fat, ugly, etc.

I don't seem to recall any of the same crap being directed at Jim C. Hines.

Some of the readers, though, had a slightly different complaint-- What's the point?  What are you trying to prove? they asked.  And I'd like to try and answer that.

I think a general principle can be applied to storytelling, which is that whatever reality your story is set in, if your characters differ from the what is normal for that reality (in terms of abilities, appearance, etc.), you need to account for that difference. It's sloppy storytelling-- or worse, a mistake-- to have characters deviate from reality with no apparent purpose or explanation whatsoever.

So, for example, if you make a movie that's set in downtown Atlanta in 2004, and you have your main characters walking down the street surrounded by people and all of those people are white, you're deviating from reality in a way that needs an explanation.  Did everyone of a different ethnicity get vaporized by aliens?  Did Georgia experience a holocaust?  If the answer is "We didn't bother to hire any non-white extras" or "We purposefully didn't hire any non-white extras," that's not going to cut it.  There are really only two possible interpretations for your viewer, and those are:
  • The movie-makers are sloppy story-tellers, or 
  • The movie-makers are making a statement about their preferred reality, and that reality doesn't include non-white people. In other words, the people who made this movie are probably racist.
Now take that and apply it to comic book women with impossible bodies in impossible poses. That would make sense if, and only if, we're talking about superheroines whose powers include the ability to morph self. And then, I suppose, there would still be a need to explain why they chose to manifest this ability by doing the Boobs n' Butt pose...mid-battle, fighting off fearsome enemies.
Boobs n' Butt example 2

Because you know that, absent an explanation along these lines, the reader is forced to reach his or her own conclusions again. And there are (again) two of those:
  • The comic book artist is a lousy artist. He/she has poor grasp of anatomy and should invest in some manikins ASAP, or
  • The comic book artist deliberately manipulates female forms to exaggerate certain features that are sexually attractive to the artist or his/her audience, or both, at the risk of appearing ridiculous to people who have a good sense of anatomy and/or don't think Boobs n' Butt is an acceptable trade-off for realistic-looking human figures.
I think it's fair to say that an increasing number of us do not find it an acceptable trade-off.  We'd prefer better storytelling than that.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

It's my Grand Old Party and I'll lie if I want to (even if it leads to terrorism)

The claim that abortion is baby-murder hasn't worked.

More Americans are now pro-choice than pro-life. Most Americans also support the federal government continuing to fund Planned Parenthood, knowing that some Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortions. There could be many reasons for that.

Maybe they know that abortions are only 3% of the services Planned Parenthood provides, and that most of its work is actually about providing contraception, STI testing, pap smears, breast exams, etc., and they think that these benefits for the entire country are worth it.

Maybe they know that because of the Hyde Amendment, it's illegal to use federal funding for abortions except for circumstances involving incest, rape, and/or saving the life of the woman, so concluding that funding Planned Parenthood = funding abortions is a non-starter.

Maybe they think it's great that Planned Parenthood provides even a small number of abortions and find the Hyde Amendment an unnecessary impediment standing in the way of providing a costly procedure for frequently low-income patients.

But whatever the reason, it apparently has convinced conservative-leaning America to step up its game when it comes to the attack on women's' reproductive rights.  Now it's not just about right-wing talk show hosts lying that abortion kills babies.

Now it's about GOP presidential candidates lying that Planned Parenthood solicits ignorant women to get abortions so that it may profit off the sale of the "babies'" organs. Now it's about those candidates swearing up and down during a debate to have witnessed video of one of these aborted babies with a beating heart, kicking its legs while a Planned Parenthood employee off camera talks about keeping it alive so that they can harvest its brain.

Never mind that it wasn't a video from Planned Parenthood. Never mind that there's no voice talking about keeping it alive and harvesting its brain. Never mind that it probably wasn't even from an abortion, but rather a miscarriage.

No, let's vote to freeze federal funding for an organization that prevents 516,000 unplanned pregnancies a year.
Let's launch inquiries in multiple red states into Planned Parenthood's practices in an effort to defund it on a local level.
Let's call Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards into a hearing before Congress and interrupt her testimony repeatedly, cutting her off forty-four times as she tries to speak.

It makes me think of this cartoon that Barry Deutsch drew after the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, committed by anti-abortion terrorist Scott Roeder:

Only now, the man screaming accusations stands for the entire Republican party, including its presidential candidates.

And the acts of terrorism include:
Guess what, GOP? This is what you've created.

I wish I could believe it was unintentional.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Conservative fantasy vs. reality, pt. 3

I took the "most likely" out, because this is just reality.

Dan Lietha's comic about Planned Parenthood:

My response:

The facts:
  • Planned Parenthood services help prevent approximately 516,000 unintended pregnancies each year.
  • Planned Parenthood provides nearly 400,000 Pap tests and nearly 500,000 breast exams each year, critical services in detecting cancer.
  • Planned Parenthood provides nearly 4.5 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, including 700,00 HIV tests.
  • Three percent of all Planned Parenthood health services are abortion services.
This means, I would point out, that Planned Parenthood prevents far, far more abortions than it helps to provide, by preventing so many unwanted pregnancies. But I would also point out that there is no number of abortions that counts as "too many." Abortion should be safe, legal, and accessible. It's just so sad, so devastatingly sad, for people to think that they're curbing unwanted pregnancies by cutting funding to Planned Parenthood. They are not.

I often wonder if people who rail against Planned Parenthood-- overwhelmingly male-- have ever set foot in one. Have they ever discussed their services, and the experience of receiving them, with a girlfriend, wife, sister, mother, or female friend?

I've been to Planned Parenthood many times, in Texas and then in Kansas. I spent a long time without health insurance, and that was the best and easiest way to get the care that I needed. Every woman over 25 should receive a cervical cancer screening, or pap smear, once a year-- they're commonly called a "yearly" for a reason.

Along with a yearly exam you get your blood pressure taken, an STD test if you elect to have one, and a consultation with a doctor about birth control options. Depending on the services offered by the Planned Parenthood you visit, you can walk out with either the birth control itself (priced based on a sliding scale, depending on income) or a referral for where to get it.

I'm watching the second GOP debate while writing this. I'm honestly convinced that no Republican candidate for president gives a damn about any of this. I find it quite easy to believe, in fact, that they don't care about female reproductive health needs at all, except when it comes to persuading women to have babies.

We are not baby machines.
We are equal.
We deserve autonomy.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Rearranged pond scum

I decided to go for a reductio ad absurdum this time.

This cartoon has an identified author/artist-- hooray! Dan Lietha does the CreationWise cartoon for Answers in Genesis, and that link and his Facebook page both have treasure troves of fatuous nonsense in comic form.

It's a common trope of evangelical glurge to portray atheists as ignorant. Usually the portrayal is that atheists are ignorant of Christianity and the Bible, because it's simply impossible that a person could know anything about those and yet not be a Christian. There is no such thing as an informed rejection of the Truth (note: heavy sarcasm in use here).

But in this cartoon, the atheists-- who apparently are synonymous with evolutionists, because all atheists subscribe to evolutionary theory, and all people who subscribe to evolutionary theory are atheists (!)-- are ignorant of their own ideology. And not only that, but they're so ignorant of their own ideology that a school child who has just learned of it is able to point out an implication they'd never considered.

That implication is, of course, that if you evolve from pond scum (which is not actually what evolutionary theory says, but in the interests of time we'll gloss over that for now), all you are is just "rearranged pond scum," and therefore morality is meaningless and pointless. Genetic fallacy be damned, apparently.

Which is just a weird thing to conclude, because umm.....don't creationists believe we came from dirt?
Genesis 2:7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
But apart from that, and more importantly, who cares what we're made of?

If you were to construct a person out of silly putty, and that person had thoughts and feelings just like you do, it would be incumbent on you to treat that person morally. Because unlike Shylock, a person made of silly putty might not bleed when pricked, but if they can think and feel just like you, they would have the capacity for suffering just like you. They would have desires, just like you. They would have intellect, just like you. Which means that lying to them would be just as wrong as lying to a person made of blood and guts and bones and tissue. You know, what we-- all of us-- are actually made of.

So for my reductio ad absurdum cartoon I decided to depict two people whom I know to have considered the implications of evolutionary theory inside and out. Arguably, they have considered the implications of evolutionary theory more than anyone currently alive. I took these two people, and imputed to them the moral perspective that Lietha believes is the corollary of being an evolutionist. Just to see what that would look like.

Hat tip to Dan Linford, whose Facebook post on Lietha's cartoon brought it to my attention.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Conservative fantasy vs. most likely reality, pt. 2

I decided that depicting a more realistic version of a conservative cartoon was pretty fun, and decided to take another crack at it.


My revamp:

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Pages from a pregnancy crisis center manual

I currently live in Wichita, Kansas. It's where I was born and raised.

I moved away for college, and then elsewhere for the rest of college, and then out of the country for grad school, and then back to the states and back to Wichita. It's a good city in which to be a kid or adult, but in various ways the city has continually been linked with one thing in my mind: abortion.

The so-called Summer of Mercy occurred in Wichita in 1991, when I was in middle school. Two years later Shelley Shannon shot Dr. George Tiller, provider of late-term abortions, five times while he was sitting in his car. In 2009 Scott Roeder succeeded in assassinating Tiller at Reformation Lutheran, my family's church. Now, South Wind Women's Center has arisen, in the face of continued difficulty, in Dr. Tiller's former clinic, managed by Julie Burkhart. Last year, my mom and I attended their one-year anniversary party.

That's a condensed history of my personal associations between Wichita and abortion rights, in order to provide some background for the significance of something I found on my walk this morning.

I found some pages to an instructional manual for A Better Choice, a Catholic "pregnancy crisis" clinic in Wichita. PDF available here.

Walking by the grocery store, I saw a piece of paper on the wet sidewalk, and stopped to read what it said:

"Huh," I thought. Took a picture, and kept walking.

Then, I found three more pages. Print on both sides. These I carefully picked up, folded, and took with me. Those are the pages in the PDF. As you'll see, they were not in the best shape-- it rained this morning, which I'm sure didn't help.

The first page appeared about two blocks from Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School, which I have little doubt is where they came from. Some high school student was likely walking home after being encouraged to volunteer at A Better Choice, and.....didn't think too highly of the opportunity? Not sure there. I do know it's not exactly out of character for high school students to be destructive of property.

But hey, it felt like a fun WoW quest, picking up those pages. I was disappointed when they stopped appearing.

And then disappointed again when I read this:

And then this:

At the bottom of each page....

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Conservative fantasy vs. most likely reality

I saw the following comic shared by someone going by The Comical Conservative on Facebook:

And felt the need to reply with the more likely scenario: 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Pursuing happiness together

Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka's wedding
with fireworks. Source
Over the Independence Day weekend, I kept on thinking about dignity after writing this post.

In particular I considered dignity as it relates to the pursuit of happiness, to which we all have a right according to the Declaration of Independence.

I wondered if I'd managed to articulate that if dignity is an innate quality, then it's an innate need, not an innate possession. No matter how you treat a human being, he or she still needs to be treated as having control over his/her own life.

When this control is denied, adult human beings are made unhappy. It's understandable to deny control to a child or someone otherwise not capable of making life-changing decisions, but if we presume that neither of these is the case, then we're talking about a human being who is at the pinnacle of his/her ability to make decisions for him/herself. If Beth is an adult woman of sound mind, there is no point in Beth's life at which she will be better equipped to engage in the pursuit of happiness. So to deny Beth the ability to do this is to deny her the dignified treatment she needs.

Thomas's treatment of dignity as an immutable quality has it that Beth's dignity will be completely unaffected by whether or not you acknowledge that she has a right to marry. Hell, his treatment of dignity has it, as we have already seen, that Beth's dignity will be unaffected even if you intern or enslave her.

Which would make a person logically ask-- what, then, is the moral infraction involved in interning or enslaving people? What is the wrong action committed when a person is denied the right to pursue happiness by joining his/her life to another person on the basis of factors like race, religion, or sexual orientation?

Because that is, fundamentally, what "marriage" means, isn't it?

It doesn't mean binding yourself to another person in order to have children (though that might be a choice you make).

It doesn't mean binding yourself to another person to get tax benefits (though you may get those too).

It doesn't mean binding yourself to another person to please God (though that may be involved in your decision).

And it doesn't mean binding yourself to another person in order to survive (though opponents of any sort of social safety net would seem to prefer that).

The pursuit of happiness is not survival. Survival is what you have to take care of before you can pursue happiness. And people shouldn't have to get married to survive.

Which dovetails nicely with this column by Amanda Marcotte, that I also came across over the weekend:
Right Wing Watch posted about Christian conservative activist Wayne Allyn Root—the same one who posited that Obama must have blackmailed Justice Roberts on the Obamacare decision—going on a radio show and positing that gay people are just going to be getting all divorced all the time. From their coverage: 
“Marriage is the most difficult thing in the world,” he said, “I’m talking to you as someone who has been married 24 years, marriage is so difficult that if you do not go to church every Sunday and your whole life isn’t built on a bedrock faith in God and you don’t have kids and your whole life isn’t built around those kids and none of that’s in place and you’re married, the odds of you staying married are close to zero. Divorces will now triple. Gays will never stay married. They just bought themselves the biggest bunch of unhappiness and legal bills that they could ever imagine.” 
I always found it facile to write off homobigots as all closeted gay people who are afraid to let their true desires out, as that is statistically impossible. But I do think you hear that theory a lot because there is a weird kind of resentment and jealousy that radiates off these people and it demands an explanation. I think these comments get to the root of it. They’re not jealous that you get to have a bunch of gay sex. (Though I do think some do think that gay people have more and better sex, which creates some envy.) What I think is going on here is a little more complex, and Root’s comments about what a miserable slog and hellpit of suffering marriage is gets at it. 
Look, I believe Root when he says that not only is his marriage miserable but that he believes marriage is inherently miserable. The religious right argument is that men and women are deeply, fundamentally different—opposites, really—who will never really understand each other. They often talk about marriage as a tense transaction, where women exchange sexual access and family service for financial support and a promise of fidelity. It’s a worldview where marriage is seen as a grim duty, instead of something you do to be happy. 
This isn’t even that hidden from the surface, as Ross Douthat’s sour response to this decision shows. For a lot of homophobes, the logic appears to be something like this: I had to give up hope for happiness by saddling myself with a marriage to someone I don’t really like much in order to fulfill my procreative duties. Who do you gays think you are, with all your talk of love and passion? You’re starting to give other straight people the idea that they should marry for love? Piss on all of you. If I can’t be happy, no one can. 
Indeed, if you think marriage should be about duty and not love, and that it’s meant to be a slog from which only death provides sweet relief, then you probably don’t see the problem with bullying gay people into marrying people of the opposite sex and committing to a life of pleasureless sex and resentment. That may, in fact, sound like your life. 
This kind of thinking was even in Justice Scalia’s unhinged dissent in this case. In response to Justice Kennedy arguing that marriage allows people to “find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality”, Scalia cracked a take-my-wife-please joke. “Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.” Hurk hurk, because people stop having sex when they get married, right? Thigh slap! Bitter laugh. 
Considering that these are the same folks who think you should not have sex before marriage, one does wonder when sex happens, in their worldview. It appears the answer is “rarely, with the woman in particular being reluctant”. 
Needless to say, the impact of this decision on the divorce rate will be negligible. There’s no reason to think that gay people think about marriage differently than straight people. The mentality Root is decrying—the belief that marriage should make you happy instead of being a miserable slog—is widespread amongst straight people. And it’s actually associated with a lower divorce rate, because people hold out for partners that make them happy, making the commitment easier to stick with once it’s made.
Marriage is not part of everyone's pursuit of happiness. The nature of happiness, and humanity, is that different humans have different ideas of what happiness entails. But binding yourself to another person in such a pursuit, legally or spiritually or otherwise, is central enough to our notion of what it means to be a human in our society that there can be no justification for denying that equal right to people on a basis which has nothing to do with their equal ability to make that decision for themselves.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dignity in light of Obergefell: What Thomas just doesn't get

Image: A black person's hand and a white person's hand
forming a heart. 
Someday somebody's gonna ask you 
A question that you should say yes to 
Once in your life 
Maybe tonight I've got a question for you 
-- "Question," Old 97's

Control over your own life. Since we were old enough to recognize the concept, each one of us has wanted this. We wanted it long before our parents, who knew better, were willing to give it to us. And when they started to give us control, it was incremental-- you can choose what to wear today. You can choose what electives to take in school. You can choose where to get a job, assuming they'll hire you. You can choose where, or whether, to go to college, assuming you qualify and can afford it.

And when you're 18, you can choose everything else (except what to drink in America, for reasons that aren't exactly clear). It's a rather arbitrary point at which society decides that an individual is going to have as much control over his or her life as he/she will ever have, but a point had to be chosen. To be an adult is to make your own choices. To be in control of your life, and recognized as such by society.

This control over your life is called autonomy. The mutual recognition of such, between you as an individual and the society in which you live, is called dignity.

There is a competing notion of dignity which is outdated, but persists largely for religious reasons. According to this notion, dignity is an immutable characteristic of humankind by virtue of membership in our species. We all have it, not just from birth, but from conception until...well, forever. It sets humans apart from non-human animals, and is the foundation of free will and moral responsibility. As Kant put it, "Morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity."

There's a recognition in this view that dignity is based in moral autonomy, but that autonomy is believed to be inherent in humanity, which would entail that a) all humans have dignity, and b) cannot ever be deprived of it, c) because they are human.

In reality, of course, we know that this is not true. We have seen the gradual erosion of this concept of dignity, which has correlated with certain realizations that are largely the result of scientific research. We know, for example, that humans are not the only species which makes meaningful choices-- even moral choices. We know that mental mechanisms for making such choices exist in our brains, which are themselves far from immutable-- the capacity must develop (their ontogeny) according to how they evolved (their phylogeny), it may malfunction, and it will inevitably die, at the same time the organism itself does.

There's no particular reason to believe that dignity will continue beyond our death, if the machinery which makes meaningful control over our lives possible is disabled at that time....and by all appearances, it does. As anyone with experience around people with degenerative brain diseases knows, it can easily happen prior to death.

For these and other reasons, our understanding of dignity has evolved, along with our understanding of what it means to be human and, by extension, to be a person-- a person being a legal entity, with rights and responsibilities that are due to an individual who exists in a society of other people.

A person is someone who should be treated with dignity. They should be treated by their government as if they are autonomous agents, in control of their lives, because to be treated by your government this way enables you to be autonomous and in control of your life. It enables you to take control. To make meaningful choices. To pursue happiness.

This is the sort of dignity described in the decision for Obergefell v. Hodges, authored by Anthony Kennedy.

He describes1 how government came to treat women with dignity with regard to marriage:
Under the centuries-old doctrine of coverture, a married man and woman were treated by the State as a single, male-dominated legal entity. As women gained legal, political, and property rights, and as society began to understand that women have their own equal dignity, the law of coverture was abandoned.
 He continues:
These and other developments in the institution of marriage over the past centuries were not mere superficial changes. Rather, they worked deep transformations in its structure, affecting aspects of marriage long viewed by many as essential. 
These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process. 
This dynamic can be seen in the Nation’s experiences with the rights of gays and lesbians. Until the mid-20th century, same-sex intimacy long had been condemned as immoral by the state itself in most Western nations, a belief often embodied in the criminal law. For this reason, among others, many persons did not deem homosexuals to have dignity in their own distinct identity. A truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken. Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions. Same-sex intimacy remained a crime in many States. Gays and lesbians were prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate.
The decision is an analysis in two parts:
  1. a meditation on the significance of marriage in the context of an individual's dignity, which is to say his or her control over his/her life and equal ability to pursue happiness in that life ("A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy"), and
  2. a description of the injustices that gay and lesbian Americans have been dealt in having their dignity denied at every turn by their government, specifically in their equal right as people to be able to make this one specific critical choice in their lives-- to be married ("There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices. Cf. Loving, supra, at 12 ('[T]he freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State')," "Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.")
The conclusion is basically this: To have dignity acknowledged by one's government is to have the freedom to take part in the institutions considered fundamental to society, to be able to choose for oneself as an equal citizen to commit to marriage. Homosexual Americans have, to date, been denied this dignity at the federal level. That ends now.

In his dissent, Clarence Thomas made what might seem to be the gobsmacking argument that the dignity of homosexuals has been completely unaffected by the denial of their equal right to marry:
Perhaps recognizing that these cases do not actually involve liberty as it has been understood, the majority goes to great lengths to assert that its decision will advance the “dignity” of same-sex couples. Ante, at 3, 13, 26, 28.8 The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that the Constitution contains no “dignity” Clause, and even if it did, the government would be incapable of bestowing dignity. 
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built. 
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away. 
The majority’s musings are thus deeply misguided, but at least those musings can have no effect on the dignity of the persons the majority demeans. Its mischaracterization of the arguments presented by the States and their amici can have no effect on the dignity of those litigants. Its rejection of laws preserving the traditional definition of marriage can have no effect on the dignity of the people who voted for them. Its invalidation of those laws can have no effect on the dignity of the people who continue to adhere to the traditional definition of marriage. And its disdain for the understandings of liberty and dignity upon which this Nation was founded can have no effect on the dignity of Americans who continue to believe in them.
Okay, for just a moment, let's imagine that the "the majority" did, in fact, reject the notion of innate dignity (even though it did no such thing, at least in the body of the decision). Let's imagine that dignity is a quality that every human being is born with and dies with, purely because he or she is a human being, and it can neither be bestowed upon us nor deprived from us by any other human being or body of such entities.

In fact, let's go with an analogy to something that we acknowledge is innate to being a human, at least for the time being: optimal body temperature. The average normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. This is a fact about human beings which no human can (currently) change.

Now, let's imagine that the government was in the business of awarding materials for temperature control to its citizenry based on factors like race, gender, and sexual orientation.
  • Winter: Are you white? Here's some firewood. Are you male? Take this coat. Are you straight? I've got kerosene for you!
  • Summer: Hey white, male, straight people, come and get your fans, your sunblock, and some bags of ice! Take the 20 pounder; you'll need it-- it's supposed to hit 100 tomorrow!
Imagine that the Supreme Court came along and decided that women should get firewood, too. And then it said that interracial couples should also get fans to use when it's hot. And then, one day, it declared that there is no reason at all why gay and lesbian Americans, possessed of an equal need to maintain their bodies at 98.6 degrees as anyone else of any other race, gender, or sexual orientation, should be likewise afforded a damn coat when it's snowing outside.

I know, I know, it's a silly analogy. But it makes my point adequately, which is that even if dignity is something innate to every human being, in order to treat citizens equally under the law as the 14th Amendment requires, the government must, if it is going to afford benefits of temperature control to anyone at all, afford them to minority members of the population whose need for this innate characteristic to be acknowledged by their government does not differ in the slightest from any other member of the citizenry by virtue of their minority status. And such is decidedly, irrefutably, the case if the innate characteristic is dignity instead of optimal body temperature, and the form of acknowledgement is the right to marry rather than to be provided sunblock or kerosene.

For a less silly but very important perspective, see George Takei:
I was only a child when soldiers with bayonetted [sic] rifles marched up our driveway in Los Angeles, banged on our door, and ordered us out. I remember my mothers’ tears as we gathered what little we could carry, and then were sent to live for many weeks in a single cramped horse stall at the Santa Anita racetracks. Our bank accounts were frozen, our businesses shuttered, and our homes with most of our belongings were left behind, all because we happened to look like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor. 
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was issued on the premise that anyone of Japanese descent could not be trusted and was to be treated as an enemy, even those of us who were American citizens, born in this land. We were viewed not as individual people, but as a yellow menace to be dealt with, and harshly. The guns pointed at us at every point reminded us that if we so much as tried to stand up for our dignity, there would be violent consequences. . . 
For many, it was indeed a great loss of self-worth and respect, a terrible blow to the pride of the many parents who sought only to protect their children from coming to harm. Justice Thomas need have spent just one day with us in the mosquito-infested swamplands in that Arkansas heat, eating the slop served from the kitchen, to understand that it was the government’s very intent to strip us of our dignity and our humanity. Whether it succeeded with all of us is another question: There was a guiding spirit of what we called “gaman”—to endure with fortitude, head held high— helping us get through those terrible years. At the end of it all, each internee was handed a bus ticket and twenty-five dollars, on which we were expected to rebuild our lives. Many never did.
For these purposes, it doesn't matter whether you say "The government tried to take our dignity" or "The government denied our dignity."  Takei says both. Thomas was deliberately side-stepping the point by making it all about whether Whitney Houston was right that no matter what you take from me, you can't take away my dignity. (Because "dignity" in that sense actually means "pride," and pride really is a self-assessment)

You can take away someone's freedoms. You can take away their equality. You can take away official recognition that they are people-- adults, citizens, agents-- with the right to ask the person they love to marry them, or the right to be asked that question. You can deny their dignity by denying them the right to join in that bond, which is mutually acknowledged, by those who think gays have the right to marry and those who do not, to be foundational in our society.

So of course, in the end, what you're really arguing about is not whether the government can or should give dignity to gays, but whether it should acknowledge that dignity in the way that gays are asking for. In the way the government is perfectly capable of acknowledging.

And in the end it did, Thomas's attempt at derailment notwithstanding.


Thomas's was the most important dissent to me because of the discussion of dignity, about which I have a strong interest. Reading the decision itself was impactful to me as a person who has never been married, but who has, simply by accident of birth, always had the right to marry a partner with the expectation that such marriage would be federally recognized and my standing in it considered equal to that of my partner. I think that anyone who has ever considered marriage should read the ruling, regardless of their current status, for a better understanding of what marriage means and why people would want it so badly, and why they would feel like partial citizens in their own country for being denied it.

I meant to write about this article in the post, but found the current carrying me away from it and didn't manage to work my way back. I might still have things to say about it, but just in case, definitely give it a read anyway.

1 Some internal references removed for clarity. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pretending to be

Spotted on Facebook:
Left side: Photo of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Caption: "Pretending to be a
woman: Must accept and approve of"
Right side: Photo of Rachel Dolezal. Caption: "Pretending to
be black: Unacceptable!! We disapprove"

The people I see most often making the equivocation/slippery slope argument between "acceptance" of transgenderism and "acceptance" of "transethnicity"* depicted in this meme, and mentioned in my previous blog post, seem to inevitably be those who are most definitely not accepting of either one.

They morally disapprove of both transgenderism and "transethnicity," and think they've caught well-meaning liberals in a tolerance trap by claiming that they're exactly the same thing.

While I've seen varied reactions to Rachel Dolezal from trans women and people of color, ranging from anger to scorn to confusion to pity, there has been one thing in agreement: what she did is not exactly the same as what Caitlyn Jenner did, and there is no betrayal of the liberal principle of tolerance in saying so.

*Scare quotes are ugly; I know. I just need to use them here to acknowledge the varied meanings and/or controversiality of the terms surrounded by them. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

We have to make the comparisons...they will anyway

I was all set to write a post on TERFS, right before Caitlyn Jenner came out. I had several paragraphs written, comparing trans-exclusionary radical feminism to regular transphobia, explaining how regular transphobia tends to be rooted in religious belief and social conservatism, whereas TERFism comes more from a second wave feminist idea of a sisterhood with common experiences of patriarchy, which rejects trans women based on their presumed lack of those experiences.

A trans woman, I was going to say, is seen by a TERF as a person who deliberately chose to move from a place of privilege to a place of relative non-privilege (male to female), and resented on that basis. Normal transphobia is much more blunt-- women cannot become men, and men cannot become women, because biology is destiny in this regard and God doesn't want it that way. Normal transphobia is more likely to get trans women and men physically attacked. However, transphobia among feminists aids and abets regular transphobia, and should not be tolerated.

Then Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and suddenly it wasn't just the bloggers I follow and a few friends on Facebook talking about what it means to be transgender, but everybody. I stopped working on my blog post, because there was so much new conversation going on that I couldn't keep up with it all. Instead I just kept reading.

Elinor Burkett complained in the New York Times that because Caitlyn Jenner was formerly Bruce and experienced male privilege as Bruce, the female identity she claims now "is not my identity," and therefore, presumably, any feminism which includes Jenner isn't her feminism. Ellen Goodman policed Jenner's new appearance from the pages of the Boston Globe, demanding to know why Caitlyn couldn’t "come out as a 65-year-old woman rather than a 25-year-old starlet." And Stephanie Zvan wrote a post called Let’s Stop Exercising Our Gender Anxieties on the Backs of Trans People which, while calm-headed and reasonable, appears to have been ignored by the majority of people involved in the TERF wars.

That post made me realize that I didn't want to take part in those wars.

However, it was followed less than a week later by news that Rachel Dolezal, head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, a  37-year-old woman, was born to two white parents but is now passing herself off as black. And on note, the two cases were inevitably compared and the American internet began ruminating on gender anxieties and racial anxieties, at once. The American internet, which has already been anxious about race in the context of institutional racism and police brutality for a very long time. That American internet found this news absolutely fascinating. And largely abhorrent.

Dolezal's attempted transition from white to black has benefited her personally, which has entailed a lot of what would legitimately be called fraud. Reportedly she posed with an older black man in a photo and claimed he was her father. She apparently claimed to be a mixture of white, black, and American Indian in an application to become chairwoman of Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission.

According to the Washington Post her biological father Lawrence Dolezal says that predominantly black Howard University, "'took her for a black woman' and gave her a full scholarship,"which might or might not mean that her scholarship was based on the assumption or actual claim that she is black. Dolezal also allegedly reported being the victim of nine hate crimes, the validity of which has been called into question. However, it's not really clear whether the doubt is that crimes were committed against Dolezal, or whether they constitute hate crimes in light of recent revelations.

The notion of "transethnicity" is not going over well with anyone I know of who is transgender. The analogy is viewed as insulting and dangerous, as illustrated in tweets today from Janet Mock, who is black and trans:
First tweet: "Stop using 'trans racial' in regards to Dolezal. There is no such thing unless we're
discussing trans racial adoptions, adoptees & families."
Second tweet: "Stop comparing Dolezal's performance of black womanhood to my & my trans
sisters' lives. It only further erases/delegitimizes our existence."
Third tweet: "I'll always champion intersectionality, but in this case trans folks' lives should
NOT be part of the Dolezal conversation. It's dangerous."
Fourth tweet: "There are dangerous implications when we compare experiences. The only ones
hurt will be those who embody blackness and transness and womanhood."
Here's the thing, though-- if proponents of trans and black equality don't openly consider the comparison, their opponents will.

In an inevitable column in The American Conservative called, with a particular lack of taste, 'Call Me Rosa Parks', Rod Dreher writes
But look, if Bruce Jenner can put on a dress and call himself a woman, even though he still has all his junk, and we’re all supposed to go along with it on pain of being denounced as bigots, why shouldn’t Dolezal have the right to expect us to do the same with her race fantasy? She has made a chosen blackness the core of her identity. Who are we to deny it?
It's interesting that Dreher points out that Dolezal has "made a chosen blackness the core of her identity," when he describes Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce in a dress. If you look at Jenner's photos from Vanity Fair, she looks like a woman. For that matter, she looks so much like a conventionally attractive cisgender woman as to provoke reactions like Ellen Goodman's above, calling her a "25 year old starlet." No person with an understanding of the terms would call Caitlyn Jenner a cross-dresser, a man in drag.

Likewise, Rachel Dolezal does not seem to be in drag. She seems to have made her "transition" shortly after college, and maintained it until this day. Dolezal grew up with adopted black siblings, attended Howard University, and is a part-time professor of the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University. Her father said that ever since getting the scholarship to Howard, "she’s been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” I think that, given all of this, it's difficult to say how much her identity as a black person was "chosen."

And that right there is a big point of contention-- perhaps the biggest. A persistent and damaging myth about transgender people is that they chose to become another gender. As in, a conscious choice, based on preference. It's easy to see why this suggestion is offensive to a trans person when you consider the amount of risk and suffering that changing your gender can entail, and the amount of prejudice and ignorance that must be confronted from the moment of publicly acknowledging that you're trans through the rest of your life.

One of the complaints voiced about Caitlyn Jenner was that because of her relative status and means, she could afford to undergo extensive physical changes that make it much easier to "pass" as female, whereas others are not so fortunate. In some cases, trans men and women undergo surgery and hormone therapy that drives them deep into debt. This is not a choice in the sense of waking up one day and deciding that you "find your your feminine side" and so will present as female, much as Mike Huckabee's people would like to claim.

Dreher then quotes the reader who sent him the news about Dolezal:
Didn’t we just spend the last five years hearing that this is the civil rights issue of our time? That opposing gay and transgender rights is the same as racism? Oh hell. I can’t keep up.
Pictured: People who would, today, be holding signs that
say "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"
See, I don't think anybody has said exactly that opposing gay and transgender rights is the same as racism. Rather, they're saying it's like racism, because the two civil rights struggles have a lot in common, as is commonly revealed in arguments against gay marriage that sound, word for word (except for the words "gay" and "interracial,"), like the arguments against legalizing miscegenation back in 1967 when that right was finally won in Loving v. Virginia. You may have even heard someone say that those who oppose gay marriage are on the wrong side of history, just like the people who protested that "race mixing" was against the will of God back then.

And further, it's just a bit of a stretch to claim that because comparisons exist between these two struggles for civil rights, the racial side of struggling for civil rights includes the right for white people to become black people.

Dreher finishes up by saying:
So, to recap, if Rachel Dolezal says she is a man, we must all agree, on pain of being publicly censured. But if Rachel Dolezal says she is black, it is fair game to challenge her claim. But LGBT status is exactly like race.
And that was the reductio ad absurdum/slippery slope argument that prompted me to tweet this:
Because we know perfectly well that Dreher doesn't accept that people can be legitimately transgender or transethnic. He's simply playing fast and loose with analogies by pretending that liberals hold a position that they actually don't (LGBT status is exactly like race) in order to maintain that they must support X racial thing if they support Y gender thing. Just like so many social conservatives like to pretend that marrying someone of the same sex is so far out of the realm of moral acceptability that it leads inexorably to people marrying their dog....or car, or vacuum cleaner, or whatever. Given that liberals do tend to be supportive of animal rights, Dreher could've made that argument with as much validity-- which is to say, of course, none.

Intersectionality is the study of interactions between systems of discrimination or oppression. To be intersectional in your activism is to pay attention and be active in more than one kind of struggle for equality. It's fascinating, in a morbid kind of way, how often opponents of social justice try to portray this as a weakness. As if by simply recognizing that two (or more) different groups of marginalized people have things in common, similar things to fight for, you're required to think about them and treat them exactly the same. As if those identities and the experiences associated with them must work in exactly the same way.

I don't honestly know what to think of Rachel Dolezal. I've explained in a few different places that I think it's possible to have at least a little bit of sympathy for her without in the slightest defending the real deception she has committed for personal gain. But I don't think it was malicious, or that it has all been part of some big long-term con, and I don't necessarily think "cultural appropriation" is the right term for what she did. But I'll be damned if I know what is.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Letter to an advice column, rewritten

Dear Robin,

Our only child is getting married soon. My husband and I love his fiancé and are fully supportive of this arrangement-- last year, my husband and I committed to paying for the wedding.

Here's the problem: Turns out that both my son and his fiancé have different beliefs about religion than we do. As a consequence, their wedding will not cater to our religious beliefs, which we did our absolute best to instil in him while he was growing up-- seriously, we really drummed them into him-- but apparently didn't stick.

My husband and I take this extremely personally, to the point that we perceive our son's beliefs about religion to be somehow chosen specifically to spite us and our family, which we anticipate to be highly embarrassing to our own respective parents when they come to the wedding. And that's obviously far more important to us than respecting our son's identity (or his fiancé's).

My husband and I would, therefore, like to renege on our agreement to fund this wedding, because we are ourselves incredibly spiteful and petty people who don't have the faintest clue about the long term ramifications this would have for our relationship with our only child.

Recognizing that advice columns are all about seeking validation from some stranger in a public forum, we decided to write to one and see what reassurance we could get that we're actually good people. We didn't, however, understand that given our own situation and feelings, the only person who would've actually responded with such validation would've been Pat Robertson.



Future Mother-in-law

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The latest indignity

Dignity is a sort of agreement between people. A decision to grant that a person, or body of people, deserve respect. That they possess agency, the capacity and the right to make their own decisions. To determine their own lives.

America has agreed, implicitly, that poor people have no dignity.

If we as a nation could just acknowledge this, that would be something. But nope, because we are a nation firmly in the grasp of the just world fallacy, we can't. We have to insist that poverty is something people choose, a failure of character-- laziness or ineptness generally-- and/or that the poor are cheats, trying to take advantage of society's good will.

Which is really just another way of accusing them of laziness. The assumption is not actually that hard work leads to success (otherwise known as the American dream), but that success means hard work has already been done. In other words, that successful people must have earned their success, and as a corollary, so have the poor earned their poverty.

This is how a state representative came to think it was a good idea to propose legislation banning Americans from using EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards to buy "cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak":
"I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs" with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, the legislator explained, according to The Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.” 
First-- lies. There is no way that Rick Brattin, Missouri House Republican formerly known for proposing that women shouldn't be allowed to get abortions without permission from their husbands unless they were raped, and it was "legitimate rape" (yes, he used those words), can't afford to buy crab legs and/or filet mignon at the grocery store.


Third--  if anyone's eating good meat and seafood, don't we want it to be poor people?! The cheapest food in America is also the worst for you. It's high-calorie-- if you go to the store with the goal of getting the most caloric bang for your buck, you will be best served by buying lots and lots of cheap foods which have loads of calories but are otherwise not very nutritious. Those calories will come from fat and/or some variety of sugar, increasingly the high fructose corn syrup kind.

A filet mignon is the leanest cut of steak. It's actually the only cut of steak I like, because frankly I hate the texture of fat (this is medium rare (har) case of the healthier food, at least in terms of my personal preferences, being the tastier one).

And yes, I don't buy it very often, because it's expensive. But it's not crazily expensive, And a big part of the reason it's more expensive is because it's cheap for farmers to produce fatty meat. Why? Because they're receiving welfare. Yes, it's called farm subsidies, and they are specifically geared toward corn and corn-produced products (such as the aforementioned HFCS), which make food fatty. And fatty foods are, in turn, cheaper for the consumer.

So yeah, that's how it works. A government which gives welfare to farmers to produce fatty foods which are cheaper for consumers wants to, in addition to thereby making the fattiest foods the most affordable, actively prevent the poorest of consumers from being able to afford less fatty foods.

It's difficult to imagine a way to more effectively deny the dignity of a group of people than to take every possible measure to prevent them from being healthy, and then say that if they're unhealthy, it's their own problem. As is, of course, their poverty-- which couldn't at all be unrelated to being unhealthy (Note: Obamacare also opposed).

This is an effort to humiliate the poor-- to deprive them of dignity.

It's also a double standard, as Washington Post columnist Emily Badger points out:
Sometimes these laws are cast as protection for the poor, ensuring that aid is steered in ways that will help them the most. Other times they're framed as protection for the taxpayer, who shouldn't be asked to help people who will squander the money on vices anyway.   
But the logic behind the proposals is problematic in at least three, really big ways. 
The first is economic: There's virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way. The idea that they do defies Maslow's hierarchy — the notion that we all need shelter and food before we go in search of foot massages. In fact, the poor are much more savvy about how they spend their money because they have less of it (quick quiz: do you know exactly how much you last spent on a gallon of milk? or a bag of diapers?). By definition, a much higher share of their income — often more than half of it — is eaten up by basic housing costs than is true for the better-off, leaving them less money for luxuries anyway. And contrary to the logic of drug-testing laws, the poor are no more likely to use drugs than the population at large. 
The second issue with these laws is a moral one: We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor. 
That leads us to the third problem, which is a political one. Many, many Americans who do receive these other kinds of government benefits — farm subsidies, student loans, mortgage tax breaks — don't recognize that, like the poor, they get something from government, too. That's because government gives money directly to poor people, but it gives benefits to the rest of us in ways that allow us to tell ourselves that we get nothing from government at all. 
Political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called this effect the "submerged state." Food stamps and welfare checks are incredibly visible government benefits. The mortgage interest deduction, Medicare benefits and tuition tax breaks are not — they're submerged. They come to us in round-about ways, through smaller tax bills (or larger refunds), through payments we don't have to make to doctors (thanks to Medicare), or in tuition we don't have to pay to universities (because the G.I. Bill does that for us). 
Mettler's research has shown that a remarkable number of people who don't think they get anything from government in fact benefit from one of these programs. This explains why we get election-season soundbites from confused voters who want policymakers to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" This is also what enables politicians to gin up indignation among small-government supporters who don't realize they rely on government themselves.
For further reading on the refusal to grant dignity to the poor, please see If Someone Ever Complains About Welfare Collectors, Show Them This. But only if you're okay with the rage it may inspire. May it be a productive rage.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

People being stupid about Zarya


Guys, Zarya is a character in a video game. Not a real person auditioning to be your girlfriend.

Friday, March 6, 2015


Today at PAX East, Blizzard revealed two new playable characters for its upcoming FPS game Overwatch, announced last November at BlizzCon. You can see a video of the entire presentation  here.

The two heroes announced are a futuristic outlaw gunslinger called McCree, and a Russian "tank" soldier called Zarya. Game director for Overwatch Jeff Kaplan introduced them, speaking with obvious enthusiasm and affection.

"There's a hero out there for everyone, and we all have different fantasies," said Kaplan as he
introduced the new characters. "Our goal with Overwatch heroes is that there's fantasy fulfillment for as many players as possible, to really deliver on that promise of a very diverse heroic experience."

With that, he announced the game's first female tank character, Aleksansdra Zaryanova, AKA Zarya:
She is a dedicated and loyal hero. Her goal in life was to become a championship weightlifter, and she was right on the cusp of fulfilling that fantasy . . . then strife broke out in her village, and she put all of that aside to defend her homeland. . . She's lawful good; she's who you wanna be when you grow up. 
But there's some other stuff to talk about, too. We've been hearing a lot of discussion amongst players about the need for more diversity in video games. And that means a lot of things. They want to see gender diversity. They want to see racial diversity. They want to see diversity along the lines of what country people are from. 
But there's also talk about diversity in different body types, and not everybody wants to have the exact same body type always represented. And we just want you to know that we're listening, and we're trying hard, and we hope Zarya is a step in the right direction to show you that we're paying attention. 
Kaplan obviously had some notes to which he was referring in this presentation, but it didn't appear to be scripted.

I'm honestly shocked to see such a frank acknowledgment that the desire for greater diversity in playable characters has made an impact on design decisions for this game-- and not just "diversity," but body diversity. In a game about futuristic heroes which features robots, a genetically manipulated gorilla, and more cyborg-esque augmentation than you could shake a stick at.

I think most character designers for video games might take pause at the idea of constructing
characters with special consideration to cosplay, but here are a couple of basic facts about cosplay:
  • It's an integral element of geek public life, omnipresent at cons, the foundation of many a livelihood, and the basis in which some practitioners find their best creative outlet, and also
  • There is a relentless and entirely understandable urge for cosplayers to have characters which look somewhat like themselves to use as inspiration. 
Zarya would make for some really fun cosplay. It's kind of funny how she's no less an example of physical perfection and beauty than any of the other female characters, but yet she's sexy and powerful and not bizarrely dressed for her role-- she looks like a futuristic soldier.

See? It's absolutely possible.

Props to you, Blizzard. We're watching, and appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oversexualize? Overnope.

Last November during BlizzCon, I wrote a post critiquing the design of some of the female playable characters as compared to the male characters in the newly revealed but not yet released FPS game Overwatch. In it, I addressed the following comment made by Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen:
Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we've been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don't know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it's something we're very sensitive to.
I boggled at the idea of not knowing whether you oversexualize the male characters in your games, and concluded: No, you definitely are not.

Yesterday on that post, a commenter named "blank" asked:
My question to you is, how would YOU oversexualize a male character?
Here's my answer to that question: I can't. It is impossible for me to oversexualize a male character in a video game.

Here's why:

Obviously I am not any sort of game designer, specifically not a character concept artist for any video game, but let's pretend that I am.

Let's pretend that I have both unlimited funding with which to produce a video game, and unlimited creative control over its content. Let's imagine that having all of these resources and control, I decided to make the most sexual game possible involving male characters.

In order to maximize the sexualization of the male characters in this game, I would leave out female characters altogether. I would, effectively, make a gay porn movie in video game form.

In this gay porn game, because we're talking about the design of fictional characters here, I would exaggerate all of the sexual characteristics of these male characters far beyond what is possible in real life. I would exaggerate their secondary sexual characteristics as well, so that not only would these be the most well-endowed male characters ever, but they would also be the most unquestionably male. And they would be doing...well, what you'd expect to find in a gay porn movie turned video game.  That is the greatest extent to which it's possible for me, personally, to sexualize male characters.

(Would I then want to play this video game? thanks.)

But that doesn't answer the question. The question was regarding what I would do to oversexualize male characters, and, as already stated, I can't do that.

That's because in this case, the "over" in "oversexualized" refers to frequency.

A trope is a device in story-telling which appears frequently. In today's usage in pop culture, it typically refers to such a device being used so frequently that it becomes hackneyed, cliché. That's the sense in which Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes v. Women in Video Games series is named, something which I've noticed seems to be all too often lost on its detractors. "She totally misrepresented the game mechanics in Hitman!" they will complain, as if such a gripe is devastating to the point of a video series dedicated to pointing out repeated use of depictions of female characters over time and throughout the industry, and discussing how the near-ubiquity of such depictions is bothersome and even harmful.

When Tropes v. Women says that women in video games are oversexualized, that's the kind of "over" it's talking about. Compared to that, my exaggerated gay porn video game would be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Maybe the non-proverbial pond, lake, or sea.

To ask how I would oversexualize male characters in video games is akin to asking how I would make America heterophobic. How I would make the country overly concerned about ending poverty. How I'd render the world's hungry overly fed.

It's funny to imagine, isn't it? But yeah, that kind of "over" is not gonna happen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday's killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant-- he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks "inspired" the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday's attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:
El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. 
Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. 
As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical - reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. 
He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles - earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. 
But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). 
He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 
I'm sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn't sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem-- at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend's killings-- may have been that he went to prison at all:
Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. 
Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen's Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. 
He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. 
The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. 
A reporter who covered Hussein's assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked "just a hardened criminal" rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. 
"Omar, at the trial, didn't seem religious at all. Almost the opposite," Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. "He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him."
Interesting phrasing there, when "religious" in this case means "interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers." That isn't the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That's being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn't that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can't seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn't exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein's previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It's tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion-- claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals-- but I think it's more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That "spectacular" Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I'm afraid-- really, this thought frightens me-- that they're not. That's the banality of evil for you.