Enough Already

04.21.14

Female Journalist Gets Rape Threats Over Comic Book Criticism

After criticizing the new ‘Teen Titans’ cover, Janelle Asselin was name-called and threatened with rape. The worst part? No one is surprised.

You’ve seen this scenario before, and you’ll see it again (until more of us do something). Woman writes about something traditionally regarded as a male-orientated industry or area of interest; if she’s conveying love, she’s doing it “for attention” (so what?) or “fake” (whatever that means); if she criticizes, she’s insulting, whining, moaning, on her period; if she says anything at all, her argument or point is made invisible because her damn biology is getting in the way.

This latest incident involves Janelle Asselin, who was a DC Comics editor of something called “Batman,” a line editor at Newsrama, and so on. Needless to say, she’s got years of experience in the comic book industry, in both a creative and critical capacity. But, recently, she dared to criticize a comic book cover and drew the wrath of brave comic book fanboys.

The “Incident”

After Asselin thoroughly demolished the cover of the superhero series “Teen Titans,” she received quite… unfriendly responses to her critique.

It began when an artist for DC Comics decided she was wrong and personally insulting—even though this artist was not involved with the cover at all. This artist, Brett Booth, decided that Asselin’s opinion was “an attack.” Yes, Asselin “attacked” a poor comic cover. A picture. (And a not very good one.) Nowhere in her article does she actually attack individual people nor name-call, due to a rare Internet condition known as “being an adult.”

And seeing as she is knowledgeable as an editor and worked in the comics industry, you would think she’s at least qualified. Of course, it’s helpful that Asselin wrote her piece clearly and offered sufficient reasons to back up her claim that the cover in question was terrible.

It’s possible to disagree with Asselin—to take on her actual arguments—instead of pondering over her “real” motivations, which to her critics were solely about page-hits, attention (which are the same thing, really), and so on. It seems that Asselin’s motivations could not have been about criticizing art, as part of the creative process. No, she was simply “nit-picking,” as some comments said. I would hope that more people—especially editors—would be nit-pickers!

But again, this is just another way to dismiss her point as invalid and irrelevant.

The Rise of Rape Threats

We all knew this would happen. As Asselin explains on her blog: “I was called a whiny bitch, a feminazi, a feminist bitch, a bitter cunt, and then the rape threats started rolling in.”

Also some measure of irony must be noted. She puts it very well and it’s worth quoting her in full (my emphasis):

“You see, I’m also doing a survey about sexual harassment in comics. (If you’d like to take this survey, you can find it here.) And so as soon as the angry fanboys started looking me up after [critique], they discovered this survey and started answering my questions and using the open box at the end to write in all sorts of awfulness. I’ve gotten all manner of bullshit within the survey now, but at least the ones with the rape threats or other asshole comments tell me which responses to disregard.  If you really want to “get me” and prove that sexual harassment doesn’t exist in comics, I don’t know, maybe it’s better for you to answer honestly about how you haven’t been sexually harassed. Because certainly sending me rape threats proves my point, not yours.”

I don’t know any women (with some amount of public presence, whether on or offline) who have not experienced some measure of harassment—if not rape threats—entirely because they are women, existing in some way in the public eye.

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DC

Asselin did nothing to deserve the harsh criticism, and no one should get rape threats. The casualness of yearning for a traumatizing experience of another, harmless individual makes it hard to believe those harassing are moral persons at all. It’s easy to shrug all this off when you’re not the target individual or demographic of harassment. But you shouldn’t have that response—indeed, you shouldn’t, especially if you’re not the target demographic.

Harassment of Women Is Everyone’s Problem

The problem with writing yet another post about why you shouldn’t send rape threats to women is best explained with crude binaries: those who read and agree don’t need to be “told.” And those who disagree either won’t read you or won’t offer substantial refutation.

Then who are such posts for? Why write them?

Primarily, I want to explain why it’s necessary to keep repeating yourself; why it’s necessary to maintain a firm stance against mistreatment and harassment of marginalized groups—whether women, gay, trans, etc. This, despite feeling like futility is creeping like vines to tear down your walls of passion and security.

For now, my focus is on women’s digital treatment, particularly in those areas regarded as “geeky,” such as film, comics, TV, science-fiction/fantasy, and so on. My arguments, however, apply regardless—but for the purposes of making them, it’s necessary to have some focus.

It’s important to recognize the relentless nature with which women are stalked, harassed, and targeted—especially online—indicates much that smarter, more qualified people have considered. What you should note, though, is this: It happens; the problem is widespread and requires nuanced, but firm, responses.

Yet you should recognize the digital harassment environment of women is one that is maintained through its consistency and unrelenting nature. Similarly, so should the response: unrelenting, shouted from the highest and most respectable platforms and people. What you should want to create is a culture or community that immediately does not tolerate bigotry, harassment, and abuse.

As many, including Asselin, note, a powerful reason some men feel no hesitation when sending horrible messages to women is they believe they’re operating within a space that accepts it as the norm. But you should not have “acceptance” fed by feelings of futility; your response should be intolerance of intolerance. Silence and apathy are key ingredients to a tasty helping of bigotry. Though only specific groups are served, everyone in the community must endure the smell. And smell and taste are not so different.

I don’t know any women who have not experienced some measure of harassment—if not rape threats—entirely because they are women, existing in some way in the public eye.

So just as one voice, one single rape threat can undo a person’s sense of security, this unfortunately indicates that one voice does have an impact. But that impact should be on the side of morality, not abuse. Yet, a single threat seems to hold more weight [PDF] due to the target’s feelings of isolation. Voices echo others: your voice gets someone else’s attention, which gets someone else’s. This helps create solidarity, the very opposite of isolation—therefore helping those who feel threatened.

This doesn’t mean you must always speak. It doesn’t even mean it’s your responsibility to take on any particular person who, for example, threatens women. But that doesn’t negate your ability to indicate where you stand, when someone acts as though bigotry is the default rather than the fringe.

I Am Not the Target, but That’s Irrelevant

Conveying where you stand is especially important when you are not the target. For example, more men should condemn threats to women within the industry they operate in. This sends a powerful message of what the community is actually (or should be) about.

Again: silence, from apathy or futility, is a powerful ingredient in making bigotry continue. If you care at all about making a better community (and therefore world), you must be doing what you can to make bigotry of any kind a fringe aspect—look what’s happened to public acts of racism.

And women shouldn’t be the only ones in this fight. That doesn’t mean it’s up to men to tell them how to act. I wouldn’t presume to know what it’s like to live in that alien world known as “a woman in public.”

But what we, as non-targets, can do is respond to (other) bigoted men directly. We have less to lose and less to protect, from those who think we’ll side with them because we perhaps share genitalia. Such bigoted men need to be shown that, in fact, many men do not find it okay to treat women in degrading ways; that we share opinions about sexism women make and loathe, too, that it occurs, in its myriad ways (in depictions of women, in how women are physically treated at, say, conventions, online, etc.).

Wanting a better community doesn’t have to be the primary reason. Conveying solidarity and standing firm against bigotry—especially when the bigotry isn’t targeting you—is the moral thing to do. You have little to lose, and you and others have much to gain. But it helps, from a marketing perspective, to show that communities benefit from diversity; that by being more open, more inclusive, more safe, everyone profits. Defending diversity, not a tool of oppression hidden beneath a cloak called “justice” or “equality.”

To get briefly personal for the sake of a point: I’ve faced racist responses for my work, because my views have upset those with more conservative perspectives about sex. Yet, I had friends, readers, and even critics respond with hatred for the racism and solidarity with me. No one said, “Yeah, but I’m just one voice.” But the worst part is knowing that such racism would almost never be seen in public today (in perhaps most places)—but the kind of lurid, awful, sexist, and threatening comments you see online to women happen in broad daylight, every day. The comments Asselin and other women receive because they dare exist in public as—gasp!—women with opinions, they probably also get shouted at them when they walk down a street, or at conventions, or at work.

To Answer the Question, Finally

So to finally answer my question: Who are these articles for?

They’re for those who will read but don’t know what to do. They’re for those who know there’s a problem, but feel a solution is impossible. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know a huge problem that keeps sexism and misogyny alive and healthy is not conveying solidarity with women, not having more men and powerful, individual businesses and companies speak out when women (in general or in their industry) discuss their abuse and mistreatment.

The problems are complicated, of course: How would it be received if a major company conveyed their respect for women while depicting women terribly in their works? Again: it’s difficult. There’s no single solution, but many tangled problems.

You don’t need to write a blog post, start a campaign, or read a thousand feminist works. But nothing stops you from calling out your friends, or watching what kind of words you use as insults or slurs, or learning what bigotry means for those who are targets. Basically, doing things that, with minimal effort, make you a better person in a world involving other kinds of people.

After all, that’s the biggest community we must all defend and are a part of. And I don’t want to be part of any community—whether comic or human—where the bigots have the megaphone and the marginalized are eroded to the point of invisibility.