Monday, October 28, 2013

Three Things That Suck About Being a Feminist Dude

(Hey, kids. I wrote this a while back, planning to send it to one of those fancy modern websites. It didn't really fit their thing, and rather than trying to recut it for the vague promise of publication somewhere else, I figured I'd put it up here. Mostly as a chance to play with format a bit.)

If you’re a first-worlder in the 21st century, feminism is kind of a no-brainer. It’s not really up to you; over the last couple hundred years, a number of radical, heretical claims have become well-accepted enough that people now think of them as natural, intutitive, and self-evident. Still, the word raises a few hackles, here and there. Those who choose to use it anyway tend to either develop some apologetic patter about not being “that kind of feminist,” to pre-empt the accompanying stereotypes that inevitably follow, or lean into it, accepting that it’s worth dealing with a little extra hostility. We've all heard 'em; feminists are ugly, humorless, sexless, or (in rare cases) Joss Whedon. For guys, the territory is more confusing, the stakes lower, the stereotypes still being focus-grouped. Nonetheless, like a piece of debris stuck in the gonads of an oyster, it can be pretty irritating. Case in point:

1) “You’re just trying to get laid.”

This is both the most common and the most emphatic critique: the argument from insincerity: you’re hoping to ingratiate yourself to women, therefore you don’t really believe what you’re saying, therefore it isn’t worth believing. If it’s true that your primary or exclusive motivation in learning and doing more in the service of social justice is the possibility that it’ll help you get your dick wet, I have some bad news for you. While it’s not going to hurt, it’s very unlikely that your showing up to a meeting will make the difference between not-fuck and fuck. The most potent criticism to be offered of such a plan is that it’s the sexual equivalent of countering Scorpion's spear with a Kano ball.
Niccolo Machiavelli popularized the rhetorical device of “critique, segue, Mortal Kombat reference” in The Prince.

And yet, they seem to take issue with the goal, and not the tactics: “You should just admit it,” says the message board guy. “Then we’d respect you instead of spitting on you.” (This is quoted from memory of an actual Message Board Guy. I am assuming he had been spitting metaphorically, but you never know on Fark.) At some point in this discussion, it became a shameful thing for a straight guy to pursue the possibility of sex with women. Perhaps they think trying to be likeable is cheating, and that the only real way to play--the only noble way to play--is to fuck women who actively despise you.
Double points for nailing a girl who's actually tried to kill you. 5x bonus if you ejaculate during Star Power.

Because if wanting to fuck women were an acceptable pursuit, it’s hard to see why becoming the kind of person women want to fuck wouldn’t be the most obvious and laudable method. It’s not dishonesty that’s being criticized here, but the lack of dishonesty. This is what “game” is about: the artificial imposition of difficulty. Besides, what don’t you do to get laid? Is there anything you like about yourself--any quality you’re proud to possess, and skill that took great effort to acquire--that’s definitively not going to make you more attractive by improving the way people think of you? It turns out that most of the things you’d do to get laid are also worth doing for sundry other reasons, and very few of the things that aren’t worth doing for other reasons are worth doing for a few minutes of sweaty genital antics either. Interesting people are more fuckable than boring ones. Visible people are more fuckable than invisible ones.
And people who can converse knowledgeably about things that interest you--like, say, human rights issues that affect you personally--are more fuckable than people who are just waiting for you to shut up.

2) The vocabulary

The title of this piece bears some scrutiny. The first draft used the term “feminist dude,” which is not something I hear very often, but it has the advantage of not being “male feminist,” which I fucking hate. My antipathy toward the adjectival “male” stems from the popularity of the nominal “male,” which sounds really awkward outside of a nature documentary. Unless you’re Katniss Everdeen and you need an appropriately depersonalized word to describe a tall combatant with long legs and the kind of chest and shoulder muscles you want for melee combat--because it literally hasn’t occurred to you that men’s bodies could be useful, desirable, or fun for any other reason--the adjectival “male” is a strange choice.
For any new readers: if you didn't like The Hunger Games, we're probably not going to be friends.
It’s most commonly employed when discussing other species, and in most places “man” or “men” are better choices than “male” or “males.” (The converse--the use of “females” where “women” would make more sense--seems to employed almost entirely by men’s rights activists and the Ferengi.)
The Ferengi, to their credit, seem to be entirely aware that they're assholes.
At the moment, there isn’t really a consensus on whether men ought to be referred to as feminists at all, or rather the more qualified (albeit more descriptive) “feminist allies,” or simply “allies.” The whole thing can get pretty confusing, and if you don’t believe me, you’ve never spent hours locked in an unwinnable game of Axis and Feminists.

Since drafting this article, incidentally, I'm told that "feminist dude(s)" has also been co-opted by assholes, although not the same assholes who earlier co-opted "male feminist(s)" "Guys who get it" has been suggested, but it's meaningless as a self-descriptor. I cannot, by definition, know whether or not I "get" something outside my own experience; if I didn't get it, I wouldn't know. It is, as they say, an unknown unknown.

So the title kind of sucks, and I might have just argued against the validity of my own writing on the subject. Clearly there’s some awkwardness right out of the gate. When you're writing about this stuff, you’re not always sure, in advance, what’s going to be insightful and what’s just going to piss people off. There’s no way to “solve,” this. It’s not about you.

This is a more jarring thought than it seems. If you’re a guy with internet access and time to waste reading my blog--especially if you also happen to be white, straight, and economically stable--you probably don’t realize the extent to which language and culture are bent to your experience. Yes, there’s a huge chunk of the culture devoted to the unique interests of women; it’s just that its primary purpose is to make sure you want to fuck them, and make sure they want you to want to fuck them. You don’t have to think about it, or even know about it to benefit from it. This phenomenon is known as privilege, and it’s one of those terms ends up being a rallying flag for misogynists. It’s a straw man’s wet dream.
Editor's note: do not google "straw man's wet dream."
Still, even well-meaning people bristle at being accused of ignorance or false consciousness. The joke, of course, is that it’s basically just a reification of the idea that you don’t intuitively understand other people’s perspectives. “You aren’t not-you” isn’t revolutionary; it’s a fucking tautology.

While “privilege” will get you derision, “rape culture” will get you pitchforks and torches. (This is hyperbole. It will actually get you derision, defensiveness, hostility, and, once in a while, rape threats.) As with privilege, it’s a lot more intuitive than it sounds, and as with everything else, it wouldn’t be substantially improved with different vocabulary. These concepts are difficult to see, for sure. For you. Because you don’t have to think about them very often.

3) You won’t like what you learn.

When you do think about them, it can get pretty dark pretty fast. Eventually, you have to turn your Mighty Critical Gaze on yourself, and then you’re kicking at the other side of the problem from #1. Being a better person might make you more interesting, give you an in with a new social circle, or get you laid, but if you’re being a better person for those reasons exclusively, or even primarily, it’s going to end badly. Spend some time reading about white knights and predator theory, and put two and two together: earning someone’s trust is an valuable, laudable thing, and makes the best parts of the human experience possible. It’s also, for most people, a prerequisite for abusing and exploiting people and getting away with it. You learn that unexamined assumptions and self-deception have made your own motives are often murkier than you’d like, and you can’t inherently trust that your heart is in the right place because it’s yours. So, you’re going to learn stuff that isn’t pleasant. And it’s stuff that some people in your life--nice, well-meaning folk by most standards--aren’t going to know about, or care about, or spend much time thinking about. You’re not going to like it very much.
Yeah, there aren't really any jokes in this section.
You’ll find that the lives of women you care about are a bit darker than you’d thought. Fears you’d thought of as transient, when you thought of them at all, turn out to be around all the time. You’ll find that what you’d thought of as idiosyncracies have solid roots in anxiety, embarrassment, and quite often, trauma. As they learn to trust you more, you’ll realize how nervous they’d acted before, when you thought they’d trusted you. You’ll learn about your mistakes. You’ll learn that you’ve marginalized people without realizing it, been demeaning when you thought you were being wry. It’s a difficult feeling, because moral authority is a real thing, and guilt is ultimately a subtype of fear. Especially because you really didn’t think of yourself as being that way. Nobody wants to be the kind of person whose ass they’d want to kick. As for dealing with it, you have some options. You can decide that it couldn’t be true if it makes you feel bad, and blame those dastardly feminists for making up these elaborate hoaxes so you’d let your guard down, allowing witches to steal your penis. You can concoct elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why women run the entire Western world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Or, you can let go.

You can stop worrying that a subset of people will think you’re part of a different subset of people that behaves badly, and just focus on not behaving badly. You don’t personally need to be the standard-bearer for Justice, Logic, and Objectivity; you can even admit that you might not recognize them when you see them, because there’s shit you haven’t thought of. You can just listen. Once you make a habit of it, it’s immensely freeing. In that light, even minor annoyances I’ve here described in an overlong fashion are negligible. The only thing that sucks about being a feminist, for anyone, is misogyny. The rest is gravy.
Pictured: feminism.

4) Internet comments.

Seriously. Fuck you, internet commenters.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Prudence, IN

Are there advice columns that aren't terrible? You never seem to hear about them. Perhaps it's because good advice is, in practice, usually pretty obvious, and the tough questions involve choosing between several terrible courses of action.

It's neither here nor there, of course, when a professional advice columnist fucks up one of the really easy ones. Case in point, Dear Prudence's Emily Yoffe's recent piece for Slate, with the impressively on-the-nose title "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk." The article in question splits its time between asserting the title's imperative and apologizing for existing. If you're interested in reading a thoughtful rebuttal, I recommend Erin Gloria Ryan's How To Write About Rape Prevention Without Sounding Like An Asshole.

Yoffe's article is attempting to suss out a tension that seems to be inherent in the prevention model: you can only issue direct advice to people already interested in preventing rape, since they're the ones reading the damn articles, but you can't really do so without engaging in victim-blaming or undergirding complicity narratives. There's also the not-insignificant problem that most rape prevention tips aren't worth the fear they're printed on: beyond proximity, about the only reliable common denominator is that rapists like raping people and don't like going to prison. They tend to target people to whom they have easy social access, and people who aren't likely to call the police, or who the police aren't likely to believe.

So, basically, we're talking about women, children, ethnic minorities, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, sex workers, and God's own favorites, the poor.

Don't be in any of those groups, and you should be fine.

Even if this the risk-avoidance tactics of the prevention model were reliably successful, a more fundamental question remains: who gives a fuck? Living in fear does not solve the problem. In many ways, living in fear is the problem itself. Take it from #DepressedBane, relentless hatred and defiance will wear you the hell out. Teaching our more vulnerable citizens to be strong in the face of fear is all well and good, but seriously, fuck strength. Mere safety should not require strength. My allegiance, now and always, lies with the weak. There are a hell of a lot more of us, you see, and the strong don't like those odds.

Which brings us to the retaliation model. We tend to think of law and law enforcement as preserving safety, and, when well-designed and implemented, they can do that. Nonetheless, safety is incidental; the immediate function of law enforcement is not to make anyone's lives safer and happier, but to make criminals' lives more frightening and dangerous. Clearly, there are an awful lot of people out there whose lives are not currently dangerous enough, and rather than making victims responsible for deterring the behavior of their attackers, I wonder if it might not be more productive to focus the national conversation on ensuring that every rapist is arrested, charged, and convicted: to focus on breaking the secrecy in which predators necessarily operate, punishing police that scuttle investigations, and making prosecutors do their jobs.

If nothing else, focusing on the retaliation model it might help us cut through some of the bullshit about what a woman might "expect" to happen should she find herself drinking until she's drunk--you know, the way many college students do when they aren't too afraid--by moving to an entirely different expectation: that when someone is raped, drunk or sober, we expect the state to respond with all its fury, on her behalf and our own.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Primitive

One of the great things about office work is that it provides a valuable structure for drinking. Since joining the ranks of the partially employed, I've been taking advantage of this unexpected perk, and every Friday I've walked from said office to one of several Cambridge drinking establishments, where I grab a table, sit in the sun, and drink beer while reading A Game of Thrones. With my usual ear for the lyrical, I have named this ritual beer-and-Game-of-Thrones-Friday.

Like most rituals, it won't last forever. There's a little bit less sun every week--for reasons that have thus far eluded me--and I'm almost out of book. Somehow I doubt beer-and-Alien-Phenomenology-Friday is going to work as well, as ontology wrinkles my brain even when I'm sober. While it lasts, though, it's been a rewarding experience, and if I'm going to be spending hours-upon-hours in the meta-feudal, rape-and-dragon-urine-soaked world of epic fantasy, it seems appropriate to do it while consuming an enormous amount of beer.

I am traditionally alone during these outings. But "alone" isn't what it used to be. The last fifteen years have problematized the act of drinking alone. I have my Britta-phone with me, which theoretically puts me in contact with most of my inner circle, assuming they have nothing better to do. And, of course, there's George, albeit time-shifted by a decade or two. But I don't bring the web with me. Judging from the people I see around here, that's comparatively off-the-grid. If you're reading a book at a bar, and you're not an attractive woman, people will generally leave you the hell alone. I joined the ranks of the smartphoned this week, so I'm wondering what will become of these little rituals.

The Big Bad God of the monotheists is both immanent and transcendent, in our world and out of it. This is generally described as an apparent contradiction--apparent being the key word, due to our endearingly limited human-ness--but the former always struck me as being dependent on the latter. To be here isn't something you can accomplish by being omnipresent. Rather, to be meaningfully here, you must also not be anywhere else. Ergo, to be everywhere--as opposed to be just all over the damn place--you have to be simultaneously nowhere. As I'm dragged kicking and screaming into the late oughts, I'm going to be not be in slightly fewer places, and I'll be within earshot of a few more people. It's how writers do things these days, I'm told. Since I spent my formative years learning to put sentences together, instead of learning network management or shotokan karate, it's probably the responsible thing to do.
Master of karate and friendship for everyone.

Still, I'm going to try not to get so used to the grid that I think of it as part of my central nervous system, because, really, I love y'all, but there are too fucking many of you to keep track of. Sometimes, there's something to be said for being nowhere but where you are.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I really wish this thing wouldn't auto-generate the URL from the first line of text in the absence of a title.

And anyway, whether I like something or not is beside the point. The real purpose of criticism is to explain what works are, how they do what they do, why they matter, and how they fit into broader contexts. Not to express the critic's coarse vote of approval or disapproval.
Ian Bogost, Distinguished Chair in Media Studies

File photo.
Evil, in practice, is a little dull. In videogames, anyway. Perhaps it’s because games live in the getting, while the benefits of evil have more to do with the having. Despite the adventure genre's inherent biases towards a particular vision of violent, assertive "goodness," the narrative usually bends over backwards to conceal that fact, to focus on what like about it (fearlessness, independence) at the expense of what we dislike (greed, cruelty, sadism). Antihero is one of our more popular, and widely abused, literary terms, and in common parlance it has meant Willy Loman at some times and Satan at others. These days, “antihero” is employed casually to describe heroes who lack the post-heroic niceties, the good guy who’s exactly as violent, sadistic, and immature as we’d like him to be and not even a tiny bit more. It's been suggested that Breaking Bad has effectively broken the antihero trope by inching Walter White up to that line, and then inching over it, and then sprinting so far off into the distance that the line's no longer visible. (I can't comment directly, because I'm an asshole, but you might want to bear it in mind as we approach the final paragraph.)

White is an interesting case, because in any properly moral story of violent conflict, the audience is inherently on the bad guy’s side. The villains begin the story by creating the problem to be solved, and the story ends when they’re killed off, even if we were still enjoying it. We bend over backwards to conceal that we write, read, and play stories about killing specifically because we are interested in killing. Still, there are practical limits. Power is exciting; sadism is dull. Ratchet up the protagonist’s power enough--and make it insufficiently fantastic to conceal itself--and it tends to fall apart rather quickly.

I was impressed by Grand Theft Auto 3, but was more apt to watch my roommates play than pick it up myself. Revelatory as “open-world design” was, the actual mission structure (especially early on) was mostly about driving vehicles from one location to another. Compared to the contemporary State of Emergency, GTA3 felt like a highly detailed simulation of picking up your friend at the airport. I mostly ignored Vice City, and picked up San Andreas primarily for the soundtrack. GTA4 came out at around the time I was falling out of the world, and no, bizarrely effusive GameStop clerk, I did not pre-order GTA5. I have, however, been reading the reviews, critiques, and assorted hubbub, and I find that I’m more interested in the game than I’d have expected, albeit primarily as a paratext to said hubbub.

Almost everything I’ve read about GTA5 has concerned the storyline, the inherently narrative quality of transgressive acts, and the friction between the characters’ personalities and the ludic structures of the genre. You’d barely know GTA3 had a story at all, from the reviews. Vice City and San Andreas had a kind of filmic lineage, but still kept characterization as efficiently archetypal as possible, and people wrote more about genre tropes than character. GTA4 tried for a more ambitious protagonist, which occasionally ran at odds with the anarchic playground when you stepped off the path--the unstable diachronic problem--but I had to hang out a group of game designers and academic wonks to hear anyone explore it in any detail. In GTA5, it seems to be all anyone can talk about.

This is why I wanted to make sure to write about GTA5 before I actually play it: I don’t want my readings of the critiques to be colored by my experiences with the actual game. From my unspoiled vantage point, I can gather that the writing does seem to be qualitatively different in this one, and that might be why, after seven or eight games, the series’ unsubtle misogyny is bothering people in a way it didn’t before. Alternatively, the environment has changed: who’s writing about games, and how they think about them, and what they think is within their purview as critics. We finally have a critical community, in that sense that the people who write about games for a living are finally acting like critics.

Leigh Alexander and Yannick LeJaqc emphasize the increasingly obvious predestination that shadows the genre. I'm inclined to believe this to be an endemic flaw to the genre, as opposed to a particular sin of Rockstar North's; the more freedom you give people, the more restraints they perceive. (See also: white guys.) Then again, since GTA has always seemed to specialize in the pointless and silly. We're talking about a series that was literally--literally literally, not Joe Biden literally--inspired by a glitch. Tom Bissell gets to the heart of it, going aggressively meta in the process:
One of GTA V's characters admits at the end of the game, "I'm getting too old for this nonsense." And you know what? I felt the same thing numerous times while playing GTA V, even though I continue to admire the hell out of much of what it accomplishes. So if I sound ambivalent, Niko, I think it's because I'm part of a generation of gamers who just realized we're no longer the intended audience of modern gaming's most iconic franchise. Three steps past that realization, of course, is anticipation of one's private, desperate hurtle into galactic heat death. I'm left wondering when I, or any of us, express a wish for GTA to grow up, what are we actually saying? What would it even mean for something like GTA to "grow up"? Our most satirically daring, adult-themed game is also our most defiantly puerile game. Maybe the biggest sin of the GTA games is the cheerful, spiteful way they rub our faces in what video games make us willing to do, in what video games are.
I'm excited to check out the game, although I don't expect I'll ever actually finish it. There's a strange tendency, in reviews, to keep fighting the last war; we all got sick of Mortal Kombat's stagnance at the third iteration, when its novelties were more ambitious than its predecessor. Perhaps MK was a narrativist, mystery-driven series after all, or perhaps commercial success rendered the familiar strange and let us see our boredom. I'm seeing a lot of references to the sheer economic might of the GTA brand these days, and it's true, but is it really an order of magnitude bigger than it was in 2008?

Have the games really changed, or have we?