I was going to write a post about some bit of pop culture ephemera here, as usual, but this week I was reminded that there’s this boil that’s festering in fandom (and in society at large), it isn’t going away, and it needs to be addressed head on. I refer, of course, to the ongoing and escalating river of misogyny that flows under the comics world, occasionally bubbling up in a noxious eruption. It runs the gamut from the arguments over Frank Cho’s latest attempt to simultaneously provoke and deplore outrage over his cheesecake covers, to the death and rape threats against any woman who dares to express a contrary opinion about anything, to the groping of cosplayers at conventions. The extreme endpoint of this behavior is illustrated by the 2014 Isla Vista shootings in Santa Barbara, where Elliot Rodgers killed a bunch of his fellow students and himself because he couldn’t get a girlfriend. That extreme outcome might not happen in the comic fan world any time soon, but the underlying behavior does create a toxic culture at conventions and online. So let’s talk about it.
Recently, one of my online friends, who is part of the cosplay community, posted about having been sent a link to a section of Reddit devoted to a group that calls themselves “incels”; short for “involuntary celibate,” these are guys who have been unsuccessful in finding someone willing to mate with them, so they gather in this forum to console and support each other. It turns toxic when they start blaming women for their problems, declaring that all women are manipulative monsters who reject “nice guys” deliberately due to some imagined “war of the sexes.” Then one of them will post something like this:
The women on this Facebook thread had this to say about the guy who wrote it:
Woman #1: He’s cute. He seems smart. He seems to think that he is so hideous that people recoil at the very sight of him, and that makes me really sad. Like wtf, he is attractive and seems completely normal aside from his clearly extreme depression and dysmorphia.
Woman #2: Holy shit. He is literally the exact physical type of guy I went for when I primarily dated men.
And then I reread his “I hope she gets tortured and killed” line 😐
Woman #3: Wow. Wow. Just….he’s a cute guy. His insecurity is just so insane.
Woman #1: He honestly is really cute. I feel bad for him. I can’t imagine the depth of mental illness he is dealing with to feel this way about himself.
Clearly the problem is not physical appearance.
Let’s get real. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was one of these guys. I moped and whined about why girls didn’t like me. I chased and bothered girls I found attractive, pestered them, made an embarrassing spectacle of myself, went in for grand gestures to demonstrate my devotion and worthiness, and managed merely to aggravate, frighten and alienate a number of young women who deserved far better than what I inflicted on them. The only thing that kept me from going to the toxic level of these guys was my inability to blame the girls for what I knew was something wrong with me.
It turned out that what was wrong with me was not that I was short, weird, skinny, nerdy or anything else. I was so focused on trying to get something from them (attention, affection, validation) that I never gave any thought to what they might expect to get from me. I was that classic mix of unexamined entitlement and overexamined self-doubt that Woody Allen described in Play it Again, Sam; “I’m very picky about women. I don’t know how I can afford to be, but I am.”
I bought into the myth of Clark Kent, which previously was the myth of the Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and a dozen other fairy tales. Someday some smart princess was going to figure out that her love and affection would transform me from grotesque to royal. The part I missed was that it only works if you really are a handsome prince under enchantment or a superhero behind the glasses. I also missed the more obvious part that the curse that had turned me into a monster was insecurity. For a variety of reasons, none pertinent here, I was deeply convinced that people were inclined to instantly dislike me at first meeting. I was thought to be terribly shy and introverted as a child because I was afraid to talk to people I didn’t know, but the truth was I wasn’t shy, I was insecure. I wasn’t introverted, I was afraid. And I projected it in a way that invited attacks from jerks and scorn from girls. At least that’s how it felt, though I was told decades later that some girls actually thought I was cute, but I was either oblivious to their signals or too wrapped up in my own self-loathing to ever believe them. If they straight-up told me they liked me, I’d say “why?” and assume they were setting me up for ridicule like the mean girl in an ’80s teen comedy.
My selfish reverse-narcissism (which is still narcissism, since I was still wrapped up in myself, though it was entirely negative) made several girls’ lives miserable. Almost 40 years later, I still sometimes remember some stupid or awful thing I did, cringe at the memory, wish there were a way to apologize, then sigh and accept that there’s nothing to do but to let it stay buried.
I also learned how I was making those girls feel; how I stressed them out, made them frightened, forced them to eventually tell me flat-out (and repeatedly) to get lost, drop dead, go away, because I couldn’t take a hint or accept a polite refusal. I couldn’t understand that by making some innocent kid the magical solution to all my personal demons, I was putting an enormous and terrifying burden on her, especially the unspoken implication that the price of failure would be terrible. Would I get violent? Would I harm myself? Would I seek some sort of vengeance? I was obviously unstable, but just how unstable was I and what recourse did she have? How did my problems become her problem?
Eventually, with the help of a number of friends, I gradually figured it out. I learned that I wasn’t ever going to lose my hard-wired feeling that people don’t like me, but I didn’t have to act on it or let it control me. As soon as I stopped telling people not to like me, they stopped not liking me. More than that, I learned that, as the Ancient One says, it’s not about me. I was so focused on my own fears and wants that I was oblivious to anyone else’s. I told the girl all about what I wanted from her, but never mentioned or even considered what I was bringing to the table; what was she supposed to get out of the relationship, apart from the satisfaction of having improved and rehabilitated me, which is what all good Manic Pixie Dream Girls really want? Once I acquired a little bit of empathy (which was greatly assisted by immersion in the works of Harry Chapin), I realized that most girls were every bit as unsure, insecure, fearful and self-doubting as I was. If you treat them like people, they tend to respond well to that.
Today, when I rationally examine the facts, I know that I am popular and well-liked and have a lot of friends. I also know that I endlessly rehash every gaffe I ever made, every display of awkwardness, every incident when I offended or hurt someone, and wonder if they will ever forgive me for the terrible things I did (that they had actually most likely forgotten pretty quickly). I still live with doubt, insecurity, recrimination and second-guessing, but I don’t give in to it. When you know better, you do better.
(One note: If you’re one of my long-time friends, please do me the kindness of repressing the urge to jump into the comments section with “hilarious” stories of my embarrassing behavior. I know all too well what I did and to whom, I don’t need to be reminded of it, and nobody else needs to hear those stories. If you’re still friends with one of those women, just tell them I’m sorry and leave it at that. Thank you.)
So yeah, I get it. I understand what these guys are going through. I know how painful and lonely it is to be where they are. But I also know firsthand that they are keeping themselves in that dark and miserable place, and in so doing, are inflicting a lot of unnecessary misery on themselves and the people they are directing their intentions toward.
Dr. Nerdlove has done a far better job than I can of trying to help these guys understand how their attitudes and ingrained beliefs are undermining them, so I’ll just point to a few of his links and leave it to him, while I move on to my major point, which is this:
THIS SHIT SHALL CEASE.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you feel entitled or frightened, whether you’re just awkward or a full-blown stalker, whether you’re parroting the Red Pill bullshit or just wallowing in your own self-loathing. You are an adult, and it’s not too much to expect and demand that you act like a civilized one in public.
Your problems are your problem. She can’t fix you. She’s not the Nerd Whisperer. She’s not your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and it’s wrong of you to put that on her. So don’t.
She didn’t put you in the Friend Zone. The Friend Zone is a do-it-yourself operation. She told you she wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, and instead of accepting that and moving on, you chose to pretend to be her friend in hopes of getting another shot. That only works in movies. The cold truth is, there’s a reason Andie didn’t end up with Duckie (and shouldn’t have) at the end of Pretty in Pink. He was a mess and she couldn’t fix him. And no, he wasn’t gay; he was just hiding his insecurities behind a carefully constructed facade; his awkward crush on her was concealed behind a lot of passive-aggressive behavior calculated for self-protection and a refusal to ever be honest or vulnerable. He didn’t get the girl because he refused to take a risk and just be his honest self. She might have fallen for him if she could find him in all that camouflage, but then she’d have to deal with his baggage. Maybe he eventually dealt with his own baggage and an older and wiser Duckie & Andie got back together and finally made it work. (Hey, a sequel!)
She doesn’t want a fixer-upper. She doesn’t need a project. If you really love her, fix yourself up and make yourself into the person she deserves, and then come back when you’re ready to have a partnership of equals. Let your desire for her inspire you to hang up the trilby (it’s not a damn fedora, and anyway, a fedora only works with Humphrey Bogart’s double-breasted pinstripe suit or Indiana Jones’ leather jacket; it does not add a dash of panache to your Wolverine t-shirt) and lose the carefully-crafted persona that you think is protecting you; learn to be yourself and be comfortable in your own skin, and then ask her out, without any passive-aggressive games or histrionic gestures. You might be surprised. Meanwhile, learn to behave in public.
When my kids acted up, I used to tell them “if you can’t control yourself, I will control you, probably in a way you won’t like.” I’ve been where you are, I know how you feel, but I also know how the girl you’re creeping on feels. How YOU are making her feel. So knock it the hell off.
Here’s the thing: My first comic convention was in 1978; there were very few women there. The few that were there were welcomed and popular, and nobody treated them the way girls and women are being treated at cons today. Most of us just wished there were more cool geek girls like them, girls who liked the weird stuff we liked, who wanted to hang out with the nerd boys. And now there are. Beautiful women want to dress up in the costumes from our favorite comics and movies, they want to be in the thick of our celebration of all that is geeky.
We’ve won. Our weird comic book characters are starring in billion-dollar movies; jocks and rock stars are playing our weird video games and reading our weird books, and women are flocking to conventions and dressing up as our weird comic book characters because they love them and it’s finally safe for them to say so. Geeks rule the world now, and instead of being gracious and welcoming in our massive victory, we’ve become as nasty as the people we complained about. If there were ever a place where girls should feel safe and welcome, it should be at a comic book convention. We prayed to a variety of deities for this day. And yet here we are having this conversation. The President-Elect may think it’s okay to grope women, but it isn’t. As Anne Bancroft told the vulgar construction worker in Garbo Talks, “if your head’s in the toilet, don’t blow bubbles.”
Let me be blunt. It’s long past time the rest of us (by which I mean men; women have been talking and taking action to mitigate this forever) drew the line in the sand, stepped up and told you to knock it off. We have to. If we don’t rein you in now, we know where your road leads. If we don’t stop you now, your path leads to where Eliot Rodgers ended up, to where that sad guy on Reddit wants to go. We can’t let you do that.
So here’s the line in the sand: I’m going to interfere. If I see you creeping on a cosplayer at a convention, I will insert myself between you and her. I will get in the way of your camera if she doesn’t want her photo taken. I will make a scene if I catch you trying to shoot a photo up her skirt. I will certainly call security to have you removed if I see you being inappropriate. And I’m not alone. There are a lot of us who have had enough of you being an embarrassment to us. We are going to call you on it.
If you can’t control yourself, somebody else will control you.