We've talked before about how feminist activism changes the way some of us look at things. Many of you have told me, in both comments and emails, that the habit of looking through feminist lenses at things like Narnia and Twilight has helped you to look with feminism at other things, too. (And I always love hearing how my writing has helped people grow and change in ways they are pleased with.)
We've also talked about how painful this process can be, when suddenly an old, comfortable, beloved thing looks wrong and problematic under a new light. And I think part of what we struggle to do here, week after week, is to strike a balance between being able to enjoy things for the enjoyable stuff in them versus being cognizant of the problematic issues inherent therein and being able to address and speak to those things, if only to ourselves.
And I know that, for me at least, this is a constant daily struggle -- the liking of things that have unlikable elements, and learning how to couch my praise and criticism in ways that convey that, whatever else might be my personal feelings for a book, movie, television series, etc. it doesn't mean that racism and misogyny and so forth occurs in a vacuum. Because it doesn't. But to a lot of people who haven't been exposed to literary criticism, and particularly feminist literary criticism, it's easy to miss the larger patterns and it can be difficult (and sometimes tiring) to explain things over and over from scratch.
Recently, I received an electronic advance review copy of the latest Dilbert book. And I kind of cringed a little when I received it, because I am fully aware that Scott Adams is a misogynist asshole and I was not entirely sure that I even want to review anything he's written anymore. And in fact this conundrum that has been bothering me for ages because I like to review everything I read, but I hate to give positive press to someone who is, at the end of the day, a vocal misogynist asshole. So I've already been dealing with a lot of internal conflict on that front.
And this is kind of a microcosm of the difficulties that can come with being a feminist in our culture. I do have a soft spot in my heart for Dilbert as an amusing commentary on my day job as an engineer. And I simply do not have the ability or bandwidth to avoid every creative endeavor which was created by a misogynist asshole, because the fact of the matter is that they are legion. So for months I've received the daily Dilbert comic in my email and I've not been motivated enough to unsubscribe, and I instead just look at the morning ritual of reading the comics as a sort of semi-painful daily reminder that life is complicated.
When I received this ARC in my email, an advance copy of Your New Job Title Is "Accomplice", I wondered long and hard about whether or not I could just set my feminist-cap to the side and only wear my reviewing-hat for once. I could note that the comics are mildly amusing, that the art is the same Dilbert art that we've been enjoying (or not, as the case may be) for the better part of the last couple of decades, and that this collection contains genuinely "new" strips (by which I mean, not previously published in a different collection) rather than one of the eleventy-billion retro "re-collections" that Adams keeps churning out by the bushel.
That review? I could write that review in my sleep. And I was genuinely tempted to, because hey, folks out there deserve to know whether the new Dilbert collection contains new strips or not. And I do very much like to be helpful. But it was when I got eight pages in and was faced with this paragraph in the introduction that I knew I couldn't take my feminism-hat off:
Eventually, corporate America excreted me. My bosses explained that I was unqualified for any sort of promotion because I had boring DNA and a scrotum. That's a true story, by the way. Reverse discrimination was a bit thing in California in the nineties. And for what it's worth, that was not the first time my scrotum had caused me trouble.
I get that Scott Adams is a professional humorist. But he's literally using an introduction to his newest book to claim that it's a true story that his career was stymied because he was white and male, rather than a person of color or a woman. And he's outright stating that this "true story" of his was also true for large swaths of white males in one of the biggest states in America over at least a ten-year period of time.
I went into this Dilbert book hoping that Scott Adams' misogyny and racism and assholism wouldn't affect the contents, that he would have the ability to separate out his toxic attitudes from his creative endeavors. Eight pages in, I realized that this wouldn't be the case, and that his toxic (and frankly laughable) beliefs can't be excised from his work. (And it's at the 58-page mark that this comic shows up, for the record.) And while a number of the comics in this book are amusing -- and, I privately suspect, are stories from the thousands of engineers who send in new material for him to crib from -- more comics than I am comfortable with reflect viewpoints that I just flat-out don't find funny.
Page 22 depicts Dilbert as an honest-to-goodness stalker, with the fact that stalking is creepy presented as the punchline. Page 38 and page 72 are rare examples of the strip sort-of passing the Bechdel test (except not, because they're Talking About Men), only to make the point that women supposedly refer to men by derogatory labels and descriptions when they converse together. Page 56 suggests that a dream job is one where the bosses are all attractive women who give out massages.
Page 67 depicts Wally turning down a lunch date because women "creep [him] out" as "a delivery system for viruses, germs, and unreasonable favor requests" and he instead takes a picture of her without her consent and states that he'll modify it for his viewing pleasure in Photoshop. Page 92 has Dilbert bullying a female technical writer on how to do her job, with a follow-up on page 93 in which the Boss (avatar of all wrongness) tells him to stop that and Dilbert puts him in his place. Page 96 has two strips in which the punchline is implied to be sex tourism.
Numerous pages -- at least 10% of this book -- show Dilbert mansplaining to various nameless, interchangeable women why their womanly notions about life and relationships are all wrong and stupid while the women silently cross their arms and glare at him, helplessly knowing that they've been beaten and stewing in their female rage. Ha ha, my aching sides. Page 96 was the point where I gave up and stopped reading; there's another ~30 pages to go, and I know I've missed numerous examples of sexism and racism and ableism fail as far as cataloging them for this post. I simply didn't want to re-read that closely in order to pick them out, and just went for the obvious ones that leaped off the page.
I've always believed that it's okay to like problematic things, as long as we're okay with understanding the ways in which they are problematic. And I still do believe that. I certainly can't get away from it: I like lots of problematic things and will continue to do so as long as pretty much every piece of media I consume contains problems. (The alternative is to not like anything, and I can't swing that.) And that's okay.
But I do understand that it can be so painful, the tearing away of privilege and the realization that something you once loved is now so problematic to you that it's painful to even talk about. Or to review. I get that, because I experience it just like everyone else. I can only see it as growing pains, and know that at the end of the day, I've gained more than I've lost.