In Defense of Penny Arcade

The Dickwolves situation was brought up again at the latest Penny Arcade Expo, and everyone is sounding off. I find I generally disagree with most of the articles published on this subject; in my view, the joke in the original comic was not at the expense of rape victims, that distinction is extremely important, and the whole thing was blown way, way out of proportion. However, Penny Arcade doesn’t need me to defend them, and other than the fact that I’m a fan of PA’s Strip Search, the issue really has nothing to do with me.

So the question I’ve been asking myself the last few days is “Why does this bother me so much? Why do I care?”

I think it’s partially because some of the condemnations of PA and their fanbase are so blatantly illogical. In an open letter to Jerry Holkins, game designer Christine Love says the following:

“Like, seriously, Mike basically said “we should have continued to make jokes about rape at the convention, even though we know it makes people feel unsafe,” and Robert said that contrary opinions shouldn’t be listened to. This is literally the subtext of what they said.”

Mike did not “basically” say that at all (and clarifies further that that certainly wasn’t what he meant) and I completely disagree with her view of what the subtext of that situation was. I would say the subtext was “Look, we make a silly comic that specializes in irreverent humor and sometimes offend people, and we are generally bad barometers of this stuff. Let’s just sell all our goddamned shirts and pins and crap and let the market decide what’s appropriate and what should be shunned.” That, I think, was the spirit of the conversation and what the audience was likely applauding. But of course, my take on the subtext there can’t possibly be right, because Love has laid down the LITERAL subtext of what they said, right?

Love then moves on to commit the, in my mind, reprehensible act of using the concept of rape as a weapon against anyone who might disagree with her.

“Maybe you can’t really relate to this, because rape is some sort of abstract concept to you, but to me, rape is what I have to worry about every time I walk home on my street late at night; or when I’m at parties with strangers; or if I ever decide to go on a date with a man. It’d be fucking nice if I didn’t have to think about it while I’m doing my job marketing my games at a convention, you know?”

I’m a woman; I wish I didn’t, but I think about rape all the time as well. I am very afraid of it. But I don’t tell people who watch Game of Thrones, “You know, maybe rape is an abstract concept to you, but it would be fucking nice if I didn’t have to think about it when I watch shows that are relevant to my job!” In other words, I don’t blame other people for basically being callous to my fears about rape just because they don’t find the inclusion of rape in a piece of media automatically offensive. For me, this is really dirty pool; arguing in such a way to make it seem like anyone who doesn’t agree with you is basically a rape apologist who shouldn’t be able to look at themselves in the mirror.

All that said, I do not mean to attack Christine Love or her work; I am unfamiliar with her games as of yet, and as far as I know, she could be an absolutely brilliant game designer. What I am criticizing is her open letter, where she made, in my estimation, some incredibly poor choices in how she chose to express herself. Maybe, on another topic, on another day, we would agree; I hope so.

Today, this article from Wired was much more logical than Love’s piece, but I couldn’t get past this particular line:

“Whether or not the strip was offensive isn’t really relevant at this point:More than the comic itself, what made the most impact was how Penny Arcade responded to the readers — including rape survivors — who said it upset them.”

Wait, so whether or not the thing that people said offended them was actually offensive isn’t relevant to to the topic of whether or not PA is offensive? Yes, PA’s initial reaction to the situation was poor (and they’ve admitted that repeatedly), but I can’t get past the idea that whether or not the Strip that Blew Up Five Internets was actually offensive in any way doesn’t even matter. I mean, what is the logic here? “It doesn’t matter whether there was any malice in the strip, intentionally or not, what matters is that some people felt bad about it.”

The writer, Rachel Edidin, also goes on to say that the Dickwolves items were intended to mock rape victims, which is also dirty pool; that wasn’t the intention of the products. You know the Penny Arcade peeps did not sit down in a meeting and say “Okay, our goal is to make rape victims feel bad, give me some designs on that.” The fact that some people felt that way is true (and to clarify, I do not begrudge them their right to feel that way), but that doesn’t make it PA’s intention. There’s a persistent swapping of cause and effect in these reaction pieces that bugs me, but I guess that’s a side note.

Really, the take away here seems to be that it doesn’t matter what your intention was, it doesn’t matter whether something is legitimately offensive or not, what matters is how people feel. If you make something that makes people feel bad, either you meant for them to feel that way, or, even worse, you’re callous to the fact that you made them feel bad unintentionally. Perception is reality, all that matters is how people react to your work, not what it was actually about to any significant extent.

I’m not getting into the whole Freedom of Speech debate: Yes, PA is welcome to publish whatever comics they want, and people are entitled to criticize those comics, and people are entitled to criticize those criticisms, and so on and so forth going on into eternity. I feel no need to defend anyone’s freedom of speech here, that’s not the issue. What I think really bothers me, at the end of the day, is the idea being perpetuated is that all that matters is how people feel. If you feel that something is targeting you, it therefore must be true, because you feel it, and who else has the right to tell you how you feel?

I hope it’s obvious why that line of reasoning might bother a person who at least tries to be rational, but it bothers me especially for another reason: I spend large portions of my life trying to tell myself that my feelings do not reflect reality. I have chronic anxiety; sometimes, I “feel” that leaving the house and going to the supermarket means I’m going to keel over and die. Sometimes, I “feel” that if I step on a crack in the sidewalk, I’ll never see my family again. Some of you may assume this is flippant, that I couldn’t possibly be serious, but anyone reading this who has struggled with anxiety and/or OCD knows that I am absolutely dead fucking serious. It’s taken a lot of work to get to the point that I can complete most everyday tasks by myself without help, and it’s still a struggle.

So while I suppose I’m fortunate that I’m not “triggered” by references to rape or sexual assault, I am triggered by virtually everything else. Actually, let me rephrase that; I am triggered by references to rape and sexual assault, but I’m generally so busy being triggered by everything else that sex-based fears actually register pretty low on the hysteria scale. A Dickwolves T-shirt likely wouldn’t send me into a panic attack, but another T-shirt might.

You know that Zelda T-shirt, the cute, ultra-simple one that shows the little hearts on it and says “Life”? The one that is for sale at any convention everywhere, ever? That shirt freaks me the fuck out, because I have a deep-seated fear of heart-related problems. I am afraid whenever I see an image of a heart– even a stylized, cartoon heart– that my heart will suddenly stop. Obviously, this is a problem outside of conventions that sell Zelda T-shirts; you’d be surprised how many images of hearts there are in popular media when you’re sensitive to it. I often need to start actively talking myself down from panic when a commercial for prescription medication plays; I have, at times, put my hands over my eyes and sang “La La LAAA!” really loudly rather than have to hear the commercial mention anything about heartrate.

However, I do not lobby gaming conventions to take down their Zelda merchandise, nor do I hound TV networks to get them to stop running medical commercials (although I do wish those commercials would go away, but that’s for decidedly less selfish reasons.) I realize that the rest of the world is not responsible for my emotional well-being– that if something triggers bad feelings in me (and sometimes, it’s more like a question of what DOESN’T trigger bad feelings), it’s my responsibility to pull myself together. I’ve had some success, but I’ll probably never be truly over it; it’s just how I’m wired. All I can promise myself is that I’ll do the best I can.

Now, you may be thinking, while this is all rather sad for me, my situation and the Dickwolves issue are not really comparable. After all, my fear of hearts on T-shirts is a relatively rare thing, whereas a lot of people could potentially be triggered by the Dickwolves T-shirt, right? Well, I’m not sure about that; after all, as I’ve repeatedly been told by medical professionals, anxiety and OCD are surprisingly common. I may be in the minority that a Zelda T-shirt specifically can freak me out (and make me feel unsafe, for the record), but all different kinds of people have different kinds of things that make them feel nervous, unsafe, even full-blown hysterical and scared for their lives. Should we take down all of our T-shirt displays, because everything you can imagine is a trigger for someone? No, of course not.

For those of us who have emotional issues of a non-sexual nature, why is our pain less real, less worthy of concern? What is so different about sex-based trauma, where people who have experienced it should be protected from any imagery that might upset them, while the rest of us just have to take a deep breath and learn to deal with it? True, I’m fortunate that I haven’t been raped, and I’ve barely even been sexually assaulted (long story). But I have been on the floor, struggling for breath, because my brain convinced me I was dying and my body was starting to comply, and ended up in the hospital more than once. I’m really not trying to make this a contest over who’s been more fucking miserable in their lives, but the point is, lots of people have lots of problem; why is it that only certain groups not only wish for protection from being reminded of their demons, but feel entitled to it?

Maybe you think that I just lack empathy for people who have different problems than myself. I don’t think that’s likely; I tend to suffer from having too much empathy rather than too little. I can’t watch horror movies, because I always imagine myself in the place of the victim who’s getting shot/tortured/vivisected, etc. I’m the kind of person who cries at movies before they’ve even gotten to the sad part where everybody else starts crying. I’m not insensitive, I’m the opposite of that, and for that reason, I’ve had to learn to protect myself. Granted, I’m still not very good at it, but I have made some progress over the years. Is it wrong of me that I think other people should learn to protect themselves too? There, I think, lies the root of why this gets to me so much.

Let’s say someone does see a Dickwolves T-shirt and is reminded of either a rape they experienced, or just the possibility of rape, which scares them (Of course, the original comic wasn’t even about rape, but that never actually mattered, right?} I am not without empathy; that sucks. It sucks being out somewhere, doing a thing you enjoy, and then having all these feelings dredged up that you really don’t want to deal with at that moment. At best, you’ll take a deep breath, realize that the T-shirt was not meant as any kind of attack on you, you are really no more or less safe than you were before, for better or for worse, and you’ll get on with your day. And maybe, you’ll get a little stronger. Or maybe you won’t, and it will just be a kind of shitty experience in an otherwise good day.

Either way, as far as I’m concerned, that couldn’t possibly have anything less to do with Penny Arcade.

6 thoughts on “In Defense of Penny Arcade”

  1. Wait you called someone out on this topic for having an entitlement mentality and you haven’t been flamed yet? I’m not sure if I should impressed that you managed that or disappointed that more people won’t read this. Entitlement is so entrenched in this issue and at the same time it’s one of the words I’ve always found too hot to actually say and be taken seriously. I’m happy to see you saying the things I’ve been thinking every time this kind of topic comes up.

    I’ve been avoiding this specific issue as I don’t really follow Penny Arcade. I don’t have any problems with them, I’ve just never cared about their comic much. That said I like the work they have done for Child’s Play and it pains me to see people putting words in their mouth over a joke even if it was a tasteless joke.(I wouldn’t know as I don’t read Penny Arcade and am not really sure what this whole Dickwolves thing is all about in the first place.)

    Gender issues are a genuine pain in the ass to talk about. Even talking to the guys on glorioblog, if I bring up the entitlement mentality of minority groups someone will inevitably come to the conclusion that I am a colossal douchbag and just stop listening to what I am trying to say.(that is until we go through our ritualistic many hour debate and everyone is too exhausted to keep arguing the topic anymore.)

    I wish there were a good way to expose more people to this line of thinking and spark some good conversation about this kind of issue without causing a minor internet riot. I think people have become accustomed to rioting their own emotions over these hot issues and many even feel like bad people if they don’t get upset over such “social injustice”.

    How do you tell someone to stop thinking of the gays, the children and minorities you are not a part and whose issues you don’t really understand, and start thinking objectively about the facts you do have. In my experience, anyone willing to listen is already doing that or doesn’t care either way. It’s sad when people apathetic to an issue are more willing to have an intelligent discussion about it than the people who care.

  2. Yeah I figure the fact that no one has taken the time to tell me in the comments that I’m a horrible person who is ignorant/stupid/etc. just means that this isn’t getting read very much. I thought the link might get passed around a bit more just because me (and MC Frontalot) are pretty much the only people not condemning Penny Arcade at the moment.

    I am a casual fan of PA; I definitely think there is plenty of blame on their side as well (without dredging up all the gory details of the whole incident), but the way feminists are painting them as evil bullies who point and laugh at rape victims is just ludicrous. That’s not what happened, that’s an incredibly warped interpretation that depends on some very twisted, backwards logic that’s being put forward by half the internet as though it’s some sort of undeniable truth, in a really quite scary incidence of Groupthink.

    It’s about turning PA into the cartoon monster that they want to present as their enemy, to avoid dealing with any of the subtleties that exist.

  3. I appreciate that you are defending the PA guys. I have met them a few times, and seen them speak in public many, many times. They are not assholes at all. Actually, they are very nice, regular people who just happen to be burdened with more genuine talent than the rest of us.

    Your point that PA clearly did not intend to cause harm is excellent; I’d like to see it come up more often when people decide to criticize these guys. But as you say, the fact that PA did upset some people seems to completely overshadow the fact that upsetting people was not what they set out to do.

    It reminds me of an essay written by Salman Rushdie in which he reminds the reader that there is a proper way to deal with someone whose ideas you find offensive:

    At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

    People who are participating in the discussion of this issue would do well to keep this in mind. Attack any of Mike’s ideas if you want, but stop attacking the man himself!

  4. Thanks for posting the link to Rushdie’s essay, I really ought to read more of his books since I’m consistently impressed by what he has to say.

    While I feel better having gotten this rant out of my system, the fact that people are now constantly repeating that Mike and Jerry “ridiculed and mocked rape victims” as though it were a statement of fact really, really bothers me. There’s something so insidious and horrible about that.

  5. Karen, I just wanted to mention my thanks and appreciation to you for writing this. I will refrain from stating my opinion on the matter or other situations similar to this that have troubled me – save to say that it is nice to see that I am not alone in my beliefs on some of this. Tycho and Gabe have been two of my heroes for over a decade now.

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