I think I've mentioned that I have a crippling addiction to TV Tropes and Wiki Walks. The other day, as I stumbled through a wiki walk, I discovered that someone, at one time or another, wrote something that was offensive! I was shocked.
Now, I seriously considered not telling you what was written that was offensive, because it's not precisely the subject of the post. But then I didn't think I could talk about the actual subject of the post without talking about what inspired it. So let's talk about my wiki walk.
I started here, with Rape Is The New Dead Parents. Then found this little tidbit:
Janissa, Conan's occasional enemy and ally, was raped by Demons every night until she could fight them off as part of her training to become a master swordswoman in Dark Horse's Conan Comic Book. Needless to say, people wrote in pissed that the writers were lazy enough to resort to this and her every other appearance in the series inevitably led to the authors apologising, printing the letters of angry readers and promoting rape help-lines.Huh. I thought. Yeah, that seems like an offensive backstory. But what's this sub-point?
The writer was Kurt Busiek, and an editor of later issues of Conan, Rachel Edidin, wrote a blog post commenting on reader reactions (part of a series of posts for Sexual Assault Awareness Month: they are all worth reading).Well, that seems worth a look, I thought. Sexual Assault Awareness is awesome and if someone thinks they're worth reading, I'll check that out.
Unfortunately, I've still yet to grasp that the internet does not always align with my thoughts, hopes, and wishes for all things, including what is and isn't helpful in a sexual assault awareness post. First, some facts, and here is the trigger-y part of the post (paraphrase of Janissa's backstory):
Janissa learned the art of sword-fighting by going to a Sorceress and begging to be taught how to be free from subjugation to men. The Sorceress agreed to teach her, and then gave Janissa a sword and tossed her into a pit, where she was brutally raped by a Demon. The next morning, Janissa's wounds were tended by the Sorceress and Janissa was warned that an extra Demon would come each night that she doesn't defeat them (i.e., 1n Demons where 'n' is the number of days Janissa has been with the Sorceress). And some time later -- possibly a decade -- Janissa is strong enough that she can defeat every demon every night for a month and she graduates.
I mean, that seems perfectly sensitive, right? Well, we'll get there. Rachel Edidin absolutely marvels:
Fan responses to Janissa’s backstory tended to fall into two wildly disparate camps: one group hated the story and attacked it for all it was worth; the other defended it wholeheartedly. Even the detractors were divided: some felt that the content was inappropriate for a mainstream comic; others felt that Janissa’s portrayal was unrealistic; still others believed that by describing demon rape, we had betrayed the spirit of Robert E. Howard’s original work. The one thing the letters had in common was that they were all from male readers.Well, permit me to disagree, Woman I Have Never Met And Who Wrote A Blog Post Four Years Ago.
The first reader response to Janissa’s rape appeared in the Conan #21 letter column, in October 2005. It was from a man who was “angry and disappointed with [Conan #12]” because it had offended his wife... This letter bothers me for several reasons (not counting the misuse of the word “belies”): first of all, its writer is speaking on behalf of his wife in a letter about the abuse and silencing of women; regardless his intentions, which I’m inclined to believe were genuinely good, he is adopting the same attitude that he so vehemently condemns.
First and foremost, "writing in to say 'I didn't like this and neither did my wife'" is not, in my Book 'O Feminism silencing or abusing women. Now, it could be silencing or abusive if the writer said, "No, honey, I got this whole letter thing. You get back in the kitchen and make me a sammich." And I don't know, maybe this writer did do that. But I'm willing to give Random Writer Guy the benefit of the doubt on that one. So -10 points for shaming on Random Writer Guy just because he said "I didn't like this and neither did my wife" and not making his wife write her own letter because this was his letter about his feelings and if she wanted to express her feelings she could get her own stamp.
Now, I will in all fairness point out that the letter by Random Writer Guy is actually full of fail of the homophobic variety (or at least seems to be -- quite a lot of his post has been cut*), so if you don't have the need to go read his letter, don't because you won't enjoy it. But just because Random Writer Guy is full of some fail doesn't mean he's full of all fail. So let's move past the calling of Random Writer Guy borderline abusive and instead look at Rachel Edidin's shock, nay, astonishment that not a single woman fan wrote in to complain about Janissa's story. How can this be??
There's the obvious options, of course. One is that despite Rachel Edidin's assurance that there are female Conan readers, maybe there aren't so many that a zero written response is statistically significant. Maybe female readers did write in but didn't self-identify as such in their letter -- maybe they thought their complaints would be taken more seriously from a male reader than from a female reader. Maybe the female readers wanted to write in, but being as they were burdened by their statistical likelihood to have less free time than men, they didn't have a chance to. These are all options.
Or, and I'm throwing this out there, they didn't write in because they didn't see the need to engage in a letter campaign to feed trollery.
Speaking as someone who enjoys a good outrage now and again, the Janissa story fell right off my interest radar. (The same obviously can't be said for the article about the Janissa story, but there you go.) What is there to get upset about? Well, quite a lot really, but it's just so ridiculously offensive that it's hard to work up the passion to spill ink over it. It's not that it's not offensive (it is), but rather that it's so obviously determined to be offensive that it's impossible to believe that the authors didn't notice its obvious offensiveness.
I mean, seriously? It's clear that the authors of this ridiculous story put so little thought into this story that its only value is in its deliberate over-the-top offensiveness. A girl is raped by 1n demons every night for a decade? So on the final night of her decade-long captivity, there are roughly 3,560 demons in the pit? Okay. And since the story specifies that the demons are taking turns, they have to divide the 8 hours in a night -- 480 minutes after all -- between them? Right. And the girl learns swordsmanship this way because the environment is conducive to learning through trial-and-error? Of course. And the girl never experiences injuries such that she dies during the night, and magical Stone Age herbal remedies patch her up good as new every morning? Sure, why not.
Whatever else you may think about Conan as a series, this particular story is stupid. It's not stupid because it's offensive; it's stupid and it's offensive. So to my mind, there's a very good reason why a swarm of women didn't drop everything in their busy daily lives to dash off upset letters to the Conan staff: They probably didn't do it because they didn't think the writers were engaging in good faith. Why would they? The stupidness of this story means that either the writers were too stupid to see that their stupid story was stupid or they were too keen to write a rape story to care that their stupid story was stupid.
Or, as Dad used to say: Don't wrestle with pigs. You'll just get dirty and the pig enjoys it.
I actually don't really care that much about the Janissa story. (Indeed, I wasn't even going to mention it, but trying to write this post without it wasn't working too well.) What I have a problem with is the phenomena of Why Aren't You Marginalized People Complaining About This demands.
I want to give Rachel Edidin the benefit of the doubt. I don't want to say that she wrote a blog post for Sexual Assault Awareness Month demanding a publicity storm of (female!) reader reactions simply to stir up expensive publicity for a company she did/does work for. I do want to assume that as a female writer in the comics industry, she does genuinely want to see more interaction between female readers and the (predominantly) male producers of the material.
But, at the same time Why Aren't You Marginalized People Complaining About This is classic Derailing 101. It's If You Won't Educate The Writers How Can They Learn and demanding that those most potentially damaged by the offensive material drop everything and spend the rest of their lives fighting the good fight, not because they want to, but because they should. It's victimizing them twice: once, because they had to read your stupid-and-offensive tripe and then again because they have to drop everything and write in to do the job that your editors couldn't be arsed to do. For free. Whether they want to or not. Just because they're female or black or identify as quiltbag or whatever you happened to be stupid-and-offensive about that day.
And the insidious flipside of why didn't our female readers express any complaints is the hint that maybe the female readers thought the comic was peachy keen. And look! One female reader did write in saying just that! Draw your own conclusions, Internet! And this is If You Cared About These Matters You'd Be Willing To Educate The Writers. And because the Internet loves false syllogisms, the flip side is of course that since you weren't willing to drop everything to educate the Dark Horse Comic writers that their obviously stupid-and-offensive comic was obviously stupid-and-offensive, then you must not care about this issue. Don't like trivialized rape in comics? If you can't produce a vagina and a notarized letter regarding Conan Issue #12, then you don't get to complain. No Marginalized People credentials for you.
And I'm sorry, but that's not fair. Marginalized Peoples do not have a duty to drop everything and educate someone every time they do something obviously stupid-and-offensive. Marginalized Peoples do have the right and privilege to pick their battles and do not have to forfeit their right to complain if they choose to ignore something obviously stupid-and-offensive.
In short, Marginalized Peoples do not have a duty to Feed Trolls.
* And this is a point that I didn't work in elsewhere, but is also very pertinent. You know how Internet Trolls will take your post out of context and use it to gallop off into the wild-blue-yonder without a single glance back? Letter Trolls do that while excising the parts of your post that provide context and then don't make those bits available to the public. Engaging with Letter Trolls is like engaging with an Internet Troll who is also the site's sole moderator.