Response to Randy Milholland

Randy Milholland, a friend of mine and the author and artist of Something*Positive, asked me today,

Honest question for you: how come you’re bothered by the Penny Arcade stuff but the Redneck Tree never bothered you?

And that’s a fair question. I was going to respond in a series of twits, but 140-character bursts become unwieldy when you need more than a couple of them, so instead I’m writing this post. I don’t want to make Randy wait too long for me to answer him, though, so this is basically going to be a listing of the things I was going to say over Twitter, rather than a more carefully structured post.

Herewith:

First, the Redneck Tree was years ago (almost 9 years, now that I look it up), and my views have changed since then (I like to think they’re better now).

Second, I actually was somewhat uncomfortable with it — just not enough to say anything at the time. If it were a new SP strip, I most likely would speak up. I haven’t gone back to bring it up both because I hadn’t really thought about it in a while, and because I didn’t think it’d be productive to.

Third, Randy’s not running a convention attended by tens of thousands of people, let alone threatening to blacklist critics from that convention.

Fourth, the original Dickwolves strip is less an issue than their response, which was to lie about the criticisms, attack the critics, double down on the problematic content, and insist that they shouldn’t be held responsible for things they did and said. Randy didn’t do any of that (though I don’t recall any criticism of the Redneck Tree anyway — there may well have been some, but I don’t think I saw it).

Fifth, Randy’s never positioned himself as representative of a whole subculture; Gabe likes to act as though no “real” gamers or PA fans have a problem with what they did — see Kirby Bits’s post, where she discusses his use of “some people” vs. “you” — when the fact is that the criticisms are coming mainly from longtime PA readers. The PA response has essentially been to assert the prerogative to define who is and who isn’t a “real gamer” according to whether a person doesn’t or does, respectively, have a problem with the Dickwolves strip and their subsequent actions. That is, effectively, they assert the prerogative to define gamer culture as a subset of rape culture. As a gamer who opposes rape culture, that makes me really angry.

Finally, as I said, Randy’s my friend. I don’t want to have a fight with him, or seem like I’m attacking him, so although there are a lot of things to criticize about the Redneck Tree stuff, if I were going to present that criticism I’d want to be fairly careful how I went about it. I’ll admit, I don’t really care very much whether things I say regarding the Dickwolves mess hurt Mike or Jerry’s feelings, so long as I’m confident I’m not saying things that aren’t true.

So that’s my response, and I apologize, Randy, for the delay in posting it.

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12 comments

  1. Heya, Scott. A few things.

    The Redneck Tree first appeared nine years ago, yes, but that was far from its last appearance. It’s shown up randomly over the years (including in a Penny & Aggie guest strip in late 2009 or early 2010), and I doubt that will be the last time. Not only that, I’ve made other jokes similar in nature about sexual assault, domestic assault, child abuse, etc. – in the last year alone. And I will continue to do so as long as I think the joke I’m working for is, in my critique, funny.

    And there have been people who have approached me, unhappy. I will admit how they approach me usually dictates my response. If a reader tells me they are concerned about a comic’s subject matter but does so in a polite manner, I respond in kind. If they walk up to me, announce loudly they were the victim of sexual assault and I have no right to make such jokes and demand an apology, my reply is something akin to: “I’m sorry you experienced that. You didn’t deserve it. But I do have a right to make a joke about anything and I will continue to do so.” Both of these scenarios have happened more than once.

    There’s also the third scenario where someone gets very upset about something in a comic, is angry that the cartoonist isn’t bending over backwards and begging forgiveness, and then rallies people to speak out and demand apologies, begging, etc. I’ve experienced that one, too (recall my fun with Wiccans back in 2004?). In this case, it can wear on you – especially when it’s obvious quite a few of the people don’t even read your comic but are making threats about what they’ll do if you don’t apologize immediately.

    And threats are more than “I’ll kill your family.” Threatening a boycott, saying you’ll stop reading the comic or buying merchandise – it comes across as a threat, even if an idle one at times. Now, imagine your email is flooded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who are insulting you, your family, calling you various homophobic slurs while demanding your tolerance. That will wear on you. You will become short tempered.

    I think the response strip was perfectly in line for the humor of Penny Arcade. Anyone who reads the strip would have expect that. Their further responses I cannot speak to. I am not them, nor do I know what all they tolerated. I will say seeing the term “rape apologist” bandied about so casually doesn’t make me feel any more compassion for those who are upset with them, but that could be because I’ve had the misfortune of meeting actual rapist apologists who feel rape can’t exist because the aggressor consented.

    Should they apologize for everything that’s happened since? Only if Mike and Jerry are actually sorry.

    Also, I have blacklisted people. Not from a con, obviously – I’ve never run one – but from buying things from my store, advertising on my site, and even donating via PayPal. The reasons vary. Some people tried pulling scams. Some advertisers have done things I completely disagree with. Some, though, pulled the, “Do what I want or I won’t support you” card anymore. I refuse to deal with bullies of any form. The list is considerably smaller (about 15 people/businesses in total) and I kept the dealings between myself and the person in question, but I think it’s fair to do so. I might have worded things differently – or just stopped at, “We’ll refund your money.”

    What bothers me about most of this is the whole, “You don’t have a right to make a joke about that” mentality. Perhaps because it’s a trigger for me – for almost a decade now I’ve had a slew of people trying to impose upon me what I am and am not allowed to make comics about. But like you said, Mike and Jerry don’t speak for all gamers. But it should be mindful that Kirby Bits doesn’t, either, nor for all victims of abuse, nor all Penny Arcade readers. From what I’ve read, her reactions and demeanor is at least on par with the “knee jerk” complaints she has about Penny Arcade.

    1. Hi. I’m a reader of S*P and Penny Arcade, and for what it’s worth, I found the ‘Redneck Tree’ strip far more disturbing (I wouldn’t say ‘offensive’ as such) than Penny Arcade’s recent strips. That’s because it was obvious they were just making a one-off joke for the sake of it, whereas the ‘Redneck Tree’ strip was part of an ongoing storyline, and seemed to imply that Mike somehow deserved to be raped. I’m sure that wasn’t the message you intended, but that strip still creeps me out for that reason.

      I don’t think any subject of humour should be off-limits, but there are some areas where people should think twice and ask themselves ‘do I really want to make a joke about this?’. Or, ‘is the joke I want to make funny enough to justify using this as a subject?’

      Personally, for me, Penny Arcade’s recent strips passed that test while the ‘Redneck Tree’ one didn’t. But obviously, this is an area where people will have wildly different ideas on what is funny, acceptable or offensive, and I’m not going to tell you what jokes you should or shouldn’t write.

  2. I was sexually assaulted as a child, and both the Redneck Trees and the Dickwolves made me laugh like hell. If I had known a Dickwolves shirt existed before it was pulled, I would have bought it(Though, never worn it public… For obvious reasons).

    I don’t know about PA’s responses since the original response strip, so I cannot say if they were being sexist or demeaning or even rape apologist. If the accusations that Kirby lays are true, I’d certainly not want to give PA my time, but they seem a bit out there.

    One of the two things that annoy me the most is the claim that rape can’t be funny. Everything can be funny if you do it tastefully and actually try to make a joke. For example, in the series The Boondocks, one of the characters, Tom, watched a brutal prison movie as a child, and developed a fear of prison rape as a result.

    The joke is that he has a dream where he’s in prison, and drops the soap. One guy tells him to pick it back up, as they don’t waste any soap. The camera panned down and showed off the fact that this man’s dick goes past his knees. The scene switches to Tom bending down to pick up the soap, and then he wakes from his nightmare.

    As you can see, the joke was more about what he feels will happen in prison than the reality. It’s about his fear. That to me was a funny joke. It’s hard to explain in text, so if it doesn’t seem that funny, I apologize.

    As a counter example to show when it’s not tasteful, Robot Chicken once did a series of sketches in one episode about Barney the Dinosaur. Yes, him. The first one shows him singing his idiotic theme to a bunch of kids on his show. The second shows him singing his theme to a hooker who tells him it’ll still cost him. The third? He’s in a prison cell with make-up and a blond, curly wig on singing “I love you, you love me” in a shakey, traumatized voice. A man jumps off of the upper bunk and says “You’re damn right.”

    That joke is just “LOL RAPE IS FUNNY.” Idiotic, and offensive at best.

    I wonder if Kirby has ever laughed at a Nazi joke, or an Inquisition joke(Such as the insanely hilarious musical number in History of the World Part One), or even a 9/11 joke. All these things are horrible, terrible things. Things that destroyed the lives of the survivors, and changed the lives of those who weren’t even directly involved. To me, they’re the same as rape on the scale of horrible, terrible things that should have never happened.

    The other claim that annoys me? Kirby speaks as if she’s the voice of all sexual assault victims. She doesn’t speak for me. My best friend who was also sexually assaulted as a child found the Dickwolves joke hilarious as well. She loved it.

    She’s not seeing that reality is often shades of gray. Humor is in that group. Humor can offend but still be funny. It can be totally inoffensive and so dull you walk out of the theater. It can be racist, sexist, and at the same time liberating, pointing out the flaws of society, trying to change minds. Trying to say that one subject is never, ever funny is just not looking at reality. I would say most jokes about rape are not funny, as they’re meant solely for shock humor. The Dickwolves joke was not meant to be just shock humor, it was an examination of how many games will just leave NPCs to horrible, terrible fates once you’ve saved a certain number of them, or certain ones. That and the completely absurd concept of it is why it’s funny.

    I will say this, though: While I mostly disagree with Kirby Bits, I like that she’s speaking up for something she believes in. Societies around the world have elements of rape culture in them(Japan being a prime example), and if this changes some minds and makes people realize what they’re saying, then it’s worth it.

    1. @ objectorbit:
      First off, since I’m a grandstanding asshole, I’m glad the Tree made you laugh.

      And yeah – execution is a big thing. I think I recall the Robot Chicken skits you’re referring to. Robot Chicken’s done a few like that (like their parody of Mr. Clean, although that went more into obsession territory than just rape).

      I think everyone’s got a trigger subject – that thing we don’t want to be mocked. Even I have them. When I see them, I generally have to tell myself, “You’ve done worse so shut up.”

      I will admit, there are topics I’ve avoided in my comics – like trans. That’s mainly because I don’t know enough about it to feel I can make a fair joke about it that isn’t “Lol you’re a guy but you wanna be a girl,” which isn’t a good joke but a half-assed third grader insult. I’d want the jokes to be the sort that a trans man or woman could walk up to me and say, “I know I shouldn’t have laughed at that, but I did and hard.” So until then, I avoid the topic. Maybe that’s cowardly of me.

  3. Randy, this is a very interesting response from the point of view of a comic creator. FWIW I’m not a PA reader and I first heard about the PA strip from the Shakesville post where a PA fan simply stated that the joke wasn’t funny (it’s here if you haven’t seen it: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2010/08/rape-is-hilarious-part-53-in-ongoing.html). I’m a reader of Kirby Bits’ blog. Two things that you said in this comment are particularly disturbing to me.

    “And threats are more than ‘I’ll kill your family.’ Threatening a boycott, saying you’ll stop reading the comic or buying merchandise – it comes across as a threat, even if an idle one at times”

    No one is obligated to read your webcomic or buy your merchandise. Someone who contacts you to tell you that they’re not supporting you anymore and telling you why they made that decision is doing you a favor – instead of wondering why your readership is declining, you have the certain knowledge about what you did to piss people off. Homophobic slurs, threats of violence, etc. are NOT OKAY, and I’m not suggesting they are, but not reading your comic or buying your shit is simply voting with eyes and dollars. Everyone has that right. And if you piss people off enough that they organize a boycott, you have a choice: either stop pissing people off or ignore the boycott.

    Because she voiced her opinion, Kirby Bits is getting threatened. Not with a boycott of her blog or even damage to her business, but with physical violence. It bothers me that you equate an email from someone saying “I choose not to read your comic anymore” with “You’d better not show up at PAX East” (which is a comment that appeared on Kirby’s blog).

    “I will say seeing the term “rape apologist” bandied about so casually doesn’t make me feel any more compassion for those who are upset with them, but that could be because I’ve had the misfortune of meeting actual rapist apologists who feel rape can’t exist because the aggressor consented.”

    I find this somewhat confusing when compared to your previous comment; you conflate losing a reader with the threat of violence, yet you believe that to be an “actual rape apologist” one must insist that rape doesn’t exist. Rape apology comes in many flavors. This is what rape culture means. Folks who respond to their readers’ concerns by mocking and minimizing rape are an example of how rape is not taken seriously.

    Your statement also sounds dangerously similar to the sentiment that being called a rape apologist is just as bad as actually being raped. No, sir, it isn’t. The term rape apologist isn’t being used casually. It’s being used to describe some folks who are minimizing rape by using it in a punchline, mocking people who object to the minimizing, and profiting off of the joke in the form of merchandise (not to mention the trolling comments in Kirby’s blog that deny her rape and/or suggest that she must have enjoyed it). The PA folks could have done a lot of things to avoid being called rape apologists, from something as major as removing or altering the strip to as simple as donating part of their profits to an anti-rape group. Nowhere along the line did the PA creators indicate that they understand why some of their fans are upset.

    As you refer to her concerns about PA as “knee jerk,” I’m not sure you’ve read anything Kirby Bits has actually posted. She hasn’t told anyone that they don’t have a right not to make jokes about rape. She’s said, quite accurately, that certain jokes about rape contribute to rape culture, and she chooses not to support people who make those jokes. The anger and frustration in her most recent posts come from being deluged with commenters telling her to “get a life” and “go to hell” and being further insulted and marginalized by comments from the PA creators. Kirby never claimed to speak for anyone but herself, and all she’s ever said was, “I don’t like this, and so I won’t support it.” Are you seriously suggesting that she doesn’t have the right to do that?

    1. A few things.

      1) I never said people are obligated to buy merchandise, give me money, or even read my comic. I use the term “threat” because that is what it is. It’s not a threat on the level of “I’ll break your kneecaps,” but it is a threat in that someone is demanding you do something or they’ll enforce consequences on you.

      The threats against Bits are unacceptable – and frankly illegal (in fact, they’re felonies). But that doesn’t make an irate, “You better do what I say or else” email not a threat. It’s less of a threat, yes, but it’s still a threat. And I wouldn’t even call it the same as an organized boycott, which at least has a mission statement and, hopefully, a published explanation as to why it’s occurring.

      Beyond that, my wording stands.

      2) “Your statement also sounds dangerously similar to the sentiment that being called a rape apologist is just as bad as actually being raped.” No, it’s not. You’re insinuating meanings, like with your insinuation that I feel people are obligated to give cartoonists money, that aren’t there. There is a major difference between labels that may or may not have social stigma and a violent act of control and humiliation and I would greatly appreciate it if you stuck to the actual words I used.

      By the way, it is putrid that anyone would belittle her and say her rape didn’t happen or she enjoyed it – but that’s neither Mike nor Jerry’s fault. They didn’t send people to her blog and say, “She’s lying – tell her so.” Unfortunately, people will be awful just on their own.

      3) I should point out I do believe rape culture is quite real. A year ago, te police chief of Dallas noted a rise in rape cases and his basic answer was that women shouldn’t be drinking so much – putting the blame on potential victims. I should also point out that I think a lot of how Mike and Jerry handled things should have been different. However, I stand by my view that “rape apology” is a term that should be handed out with care. Maybe I missed it – and if I did, please point me to where this occurred – but they’ve never said, “She’s lying. She wasn’t raped,” or, “her ALLEGED rape.”

      4) “Are you seriously suggesting that she doesn’t have the right to do that?” No, I’m not. I’m saying both parties could handle things differently. I will admit, when I first learned about this, it was from reading Bits’ later, and frankly snarkier, tweets so maybe that colored my view as I’m jumping into most of this in reverse. But again, NO WHERE DID I SAY SHE HAD NO RIGHT TO DEFEND HERSELF. At all.

      Because, frankly, if I felt that? I’d say it in those words. I don’t like insinuation. But I am saying the original strip is hardly an outrage worthy thing. And I was also trying to explain to Scott, from a cartoonist’s point of view, how there are three common ways people react to this – although you seem to have zoned in only on your interpretation of how I feel about one of them.

      I’m also saying I can understand being frazzled after being yelled at repeatedly by people who are making attacks and inferences to what they think I mean and how that can color one’s responses. And, from what I see, that could be true of both parties.

      1. 1. I’m seeing a really big difference between “I don’t like your comic so I’m not going to read it anymore” and “Change your comic or you’ll lose my valuable business and readership. The first is not a threat, it’s an explanation for why a person is making a choice. The second is a threat, of sorts, but I definitely wouldn’t put it in the same breath as “Shut up or you’ll get what’s coming to you.” I’m sorry if you’ve faced the second more than the first, but Kirby has faced the third more than the first two, simply because she expressed her opinion.

        2&3. Yes, there are differences between labels and violence, and that is what I was saying. I was objecting to the fact that you seemed more worried about the label than about the actual issue. I think we differ by degree about what constitutes “rape apology” – I attribute that to your privilege and you can attribute it to my being steeped in feminist study, but I think we’re on the same page here.

        4. I will grant that reading the events backwards makes it look like “both parties” are on similar ground; but it’s pretty annoying to see someone who hasn’t been following all along suggest that “both parties” are equally at fault. PA made a comic. People said it wasn’t funny. PA made a comic mocking those people and created merchandise to profit off of the thing that wasn’t funny. This was months ago. Now, Kirby explained why she made a decision not to support PA, and suddenly it’s “both sides should have done things differently.” You suggested three scenarios, but as I said before, those of us who have followed Kirby from the beginning only see the scenario where she’s getting a lot of shite dumped on her for stating her opinion.

        I do appreciate seeing your POV as a comic creator, especially because I feel like you would not react the way PA has, I just feel that you are giving them the benefit of the doubt because you know more of their experience than Kirby’s.

        1. “I attribute that to your privilege and you can attribute it to my being steeped in feminist study, but I think we’re on the same page here.”

          You know nothing about me, my life experiences, where I’m coming from or how I’ve arrived at how I feel but you feel you know me well enough to say I have privilege. Your comment is condescending at best, flagrantly insulting at worst.

  4. I don’t know about PA’s responses since the original response strip, so I cannot say if they were being sexist or demeaning or even rape apologist. If the accusations that Kirby lays are true, I’d certainly not want to give PA my time, but they seem a bit out there.

    Um… so why bother commenting? Kirby Bits (among others) has stated that in her opinion, the PA creators are dismissive of rape and people who care about it. Kirby’s opinion can’t be “out there,” it’s her personal reaction to what has happened. If you mean what you say about not wanting to give PA your time if they’re rape apologists, you would have done some more reading to find out what happened and form an actual opinion. Instead, you’d rather make sweeping claims that are mostly untrue. That’s a pretty clear example of privilege.

    One of the two things that annoy me the most is the claim that rape can’t be funny. Everything can be funny if you do it tastefully and actually try to make a joke.[…]Trying to say that one subject is never, ever funny is just not looking at reality.

    Nobody is doing that. Kirby Bits is not doing that. On her blog, she has a link at the top to her idea of a funny rape joke. I’m ignoring the fact that you Godwinned in your comment and assuming that you’re speaking in good faith, but you’re creating a strawman by saying that Kirby or anyone has suggested that rape (or the Inquisition, or 9/11) is off-limits for humor.

    The other claim that annoys me? Kirby speaks as if she’s the voice of all sexual assault victims.

    No, she absolutely does not. Kirby is very clear in her blog that she speaks for herself only. Her first post on the topic was a shirt in response to the PA shirt, the proceeds for which have gone to an anti-rape support group. In that post she acknowledged that the shirt works for her, but she is well aware that not all survivors appreciate or even like the shirt. Again, if you wanted to actually care about this topic, you would have done some reading.

    Humor can offend but still be funny. […] It can be racist, sexist, and at the same time liberating, pointing out the flaws of society, trying to change minds.

    Are you suggesting that the PA strip about rape falls into this category? If so, how? If not, why bring it up?

  5. chickwithmonkey :

    I don’t know about PA’s responses since the original response strip, so I cannot say if they were being sexist or demeaning or even rape apologist. If the accusations that Kirby lays are true, I’d certainly not want to give PA my time, but they seem a bit out there.

    Um… so why bother commenting? Kirby Bits (among others) has stated that in her opinion, the PA creators are dismissive of rape and people who care about it. Kirby’s opinion can’t be “out there,” it’s her personal reaction to what has happened. If you mean what you say about not wanting to give PA your time if they’re rape apologists, you would have done some more reading to find out what happened and form an actual opinion. Instead, you’d rather make sweeping claims that are mostly untrue. That’s a pretty clear example of privilege.

    One of the two things that annoy me the most is the claim that rape can’t be funny. Everything can be funny if you do it tastefully and actually try to make a joke.[…]Trying to say that one subject is never, ever funny is just not looking at reality.

    Nobody is doing that. Kirby Bits is not doing that. On her blog, she has a link at the top to her idea of a funny rape joke. I’m ignoring the fact that you Godwinned in your comment and assuming that you’re speaking in good faith, but you’re creating a strawman by saying that Kirby or anyone has suggested that rape (or the Inquisition, or 9/11) is off-limits for humor.

    The other claim that annoys me? Kirby speaks as if she’s the voice of all sexual assault victims.

    No, she absolutely does not. Kirby is very clear in her blog that she speaks for herself only. Her first post on the topic was a shirt in response to the PA shirt, the proceeds for which have gone to an anti-rape support group. In that post she acknowledged that the shirt works for her, but she is well aware that not all survivors appreciate or even like the shirt. Again, if you wanted to actually care about this topic, you would have done some reading.

    Humor can offend but still be funny. […] It can be racist, sexist, and at the same time liberating, pointing out the flaws of society, trying to change minds.

    Are you suggesting that the PA strip about rape falls into this category? If so, how? If not, why bring it up?

    I’m not sure how the wordpress quoting system works(I’ve never used it), so my replies might seem a bit strange. I am also mildly drunk on pain medication(Fibromyalgia, I love you. And by love, I mean I fucking hate you). Sorry if my arguments are incoherent.

    1. I was speaking more towards her later stuff calling them complete rape apologists. I hadn’t read her earlier arguments because the later ones were so rage filled(Which, given the abuse she’s suffered due to this, is completely understandable) I figured the earlier ones were as well. I’ve since done a bit more reading, and realized what she said originally. This reading has also lead me to the conclusion that while I feel PA ain’t rape apologists, their responses were so tactless and offensive to people who have been violated that I no longer wish to support them in any way. I wish I hadn’t bought that game of theirs(Hell, it was too hard anyway…)

    2. I have seen several people yesterday linking to Kirby stating that rape jokes are never, ever funny. I assumed that was her belief as well. That was at best an idiotic assumption, and one I apologize to her for. As for the Godwinning, that was due to my own personal experience. I’ve seen people make highly offensive jokes about Nazis, but get offended as hell once you’ve touched their subject(I can’t recall what it was, exactly… I think mental retardation?). I did not realize I was Godwinning at the time. I try to avoid doing that if possible.

    3. Well, my last paragraph covers the whole speaking for people thing given that both that opinion and the rape never ever being funny opinion came from the same places, basically. So, see 2. :P

    4. No, but I can see how you thought I might have stated that. I worded that poorly. Rather, my point was that humor is many things, good and bad.

    I’d like to say something about your privilege comment to Randy. That is, at best, an elitist point of view. A college education(Or however you came upon your feminist studies) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the lady and mistress of the subject, and is basically just blowing off his opinion rather than actually trying to think about it. It also doesn’t take into consideration that just because someone is male and disagrees with you that they have privilege. I am transgendered, male to female, and only became this close to a year ago. Back when I was male, I still would have disagreed with you. Would you have claimed I had privilege then?

    I don’t know what you’ll say there, given my first comment on this subject started with my admission of my sexual trauma…

  6. I want to apologize to Randy for leaving his response in the moderation queue for so long. I kept meaning to write a follow-up post to try to defuse the tensions that were developing here, but that’s no excuse for silencing his response when he felt attacked.

    chickwithmonkey posted another response in comments here; she also posted about it on her own blog. I’m not posting her response here, which I admit is a bit arbitrary and shows some favoritism toward Randy because he’s my friend. I hope she’ll understand.

    I’m also closing comments on this post now. I’m going to try to get that follow-up post written sometime soon.

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