Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Bronies and Responsibility

I came across this post recently on the subject of bronies, male fans of My Little Pony. This is my lack of Tumblr knowledge showing, but I find it hard to parse exactly who said what in that conversation, so I'll sum up the whole thing (and trigger warnings for sexual assault in a situation that involves the potential for that, though it doesn't happen):

The original poster is relating the events of a My Little Pony Convention, where she met an 11 year old girl full of MLP enthusiasm. The same girl came to her the next day, scared, because she was being stalked by an older male brony who was trying to get her alone in his hotel room. The poster and her friend rallied around the girl, hid her, and pushed the brony away for the rest of the convention. And she concludes that she's angry she is that this space for kids was being turned into something gross and sexual and entirely about the bronies involved. And she is absolutely right; that's absolutely gross and wrong.

The responses start there, mostly involving a debate over whether the poster should have gone to the police, and whether any good would have come out of that. The general consensus is that both the convention holders and the police would be very reluctant to take any action until something outright criminal occurs, which is incredibly depressing and probably accurate. What I wanted to emphasize, though, is the first sentence of the last paragraph: "I’m going to lay it on the line here: If you identify as a Brony and you do NOT call out this behavior when you see it, you are a piece of shit. ... You’re a dude who likes MLP? That’s awesome! I hope you get much joy of it. But if that joy comes at the harm and expense of little kids then fuck you. Seriously."

So in light of that, it's time to talk about what My Little Pony means to me, and what responsibilities that gives me.

First: I totally get the obvious objection, that the whole point here is that an unwanted group is taking a show affiliated with a fandom and warping it all to be about them, and by centering this discussion on what MLP means to me I'm doing the same thing. I can only ask that you hear me out; this post is about working through what the show means to me in order to build for myself how I can support it. With that proviso...

 A lot of the specifics here don't apply to me exactly. I *like* MLP, in the sense that I'll go out of my way to watch it, and there's a lot it does that I'm a big fan of, which I'll probably get into later. But I don't consider myself a brony, on the basis that the concept of brony has become so toxic to me that I want to go out of my way to avoid that label and because I'd never go to a convention for it, both because my level of fandom isn't quite that high and because I don't like going to conventions in general; whenever there's a situation where there's a large number of people I don't know and my own role in that group is undefined, unless I have a very compelling reason to attend, I'd rather stay home. My anxiety issues don't handle crowds well. (The difference, in case you were wondering, between that and a conference situation is that at a conference, my role is defined, especially if I'm giving a paper.)

And all of that is equivocating nonsense. The issue here isn't to measure exactly what kind of fan I am. The issue is whether I'm willing to stand against those who would warp MLP into something that comes at the extent and harm of an audience that can't defend itself. In the past, I've deliberately avoided the brony question because I didn't want to get involved; I thought if I avoided putting a clear label on my own interest on the show, I could get away with just enjoying the show on my own terms. Well, as I've said elsewhere online today, escapism is a political statement, and a choice in itself. Saying I'm just here to enjoy myself and not hurt anyone stops being enough when people who do want to hurt someone show up.  The tl;dr version of this post is that I want to be someone who would stand against the people described in that tumblr, and I want the writing of this post to be a first step towards that.

I think the sexualization of MLP characters is absolutely gross because it's alienating to an audience that shouldn't have to worry about that, and it's so antithetical to what the show is about. As for what it is about, that's not hard--it's right there in the show's subtitle, "Friendship is magic." It is a show about six friends with very different personalities and interests, and how they stay friends both in spite of and because of those differences. At its best, it stays true to those characters and those friendships above all else, and that's what I personally find appealing about it. That it does so with humor and long-term world building, that it's presenting these characters to young girls who are bombarded with media messages about how they should be competing in terms of looks and shunning those who are different, that, for the most part, it respects those fans and doesn't talk down to them---all of that is icing on the friendship cake, as far as I'm concerned. (That "talking down" point is a little iffy; in the early seasons especially the episodes tended to end with the lead character literally writing a letter that told what lesson she learned from the episode. But hey, it's miles ahead of the "The More You Know" GI Joe thing.)

It's important to me that I make clear that watching MLP is not a blip in my personal media history. As a kid, I read a lot of Babysitter Club books. When I got older, it was Judy Blume. And older than that, I spent a summer reading the works of Maeve Binchy. Usually, whenever I tell anyone that, I add that it was because I'd ran out of sci-fi and fantasy books in my local rural library. And that's a lie, or at the very least, a sin of omission, and one with a sexist core. It was something I said because I didn't want people to think I read "girly" books because I actually enjoyed them. (And, if we're going for total honesty, as a teenage hetero male, books about female desire was kind of a turn on.) For most of my childhood, I felt like reading itself was considered an un-masculine past time--I had wonderfully supportive teachers, but to my own peers, books--and any level of effort in school in general, beyond the bare minimum--were weird and uncool. And being caught with the latest Ann M. Martin was just going to make things worse for me.  That doesn't excuse not owning up to it in the past decade, though; my only excuse is that a childhood is a hard thing to put behind you, as my collections of dreams in any particular week could attest.

I've also been a fan of certain TV shows that unfold on similar lines: Gilmore Girls, Nashville,  Gossip Girl. I have a very, very high standard for rom-coms, but when I find one I like, I'll praise it for ages, like My Best Friend's Wedding or Fever Pitch (okay, high but eccentric standard). The first 30 minutes of Frozen rocked my world.  Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was one of my favorite titles Marvel ever published. What all of these things have in common are, for me, the reason why I turned to those "girlie" books to get something that the YA sci-fi of Heinlein or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy just weren't supplying for me: emotional depth. A large portion of Western fiction is centered around action, around characters who are trying to get something accomplished above all else. These other stories that attracted (and attract) me aren't about that, not primarily; they're more about just being. They're stories that recognize that people are filled with these strange, overwhelming impulses, and they focus more on how we can relate to those impulses and relate to others through them. And that mattered to me. It's not that the other stories don't do that--Dan Harmon's shows, Community, and Rick & Morty, are both examples of shows that tend more towards zany meta-narratives, but also keep a core of emotion to them. (His big complaint about rom-coms, incidentally, is basically the inverse of this, that they're all the emotion part with no discernible action.) But so much of Western masculinity seems to be tied up in hiding the fact that we're all dealing with this inner turmoil. Shows that are overtly about characters working their way through these emotions, trying to become better people in the process--all that matters to me.

Granted, it's not something I'd want to watch exclusively, or read exclusively; heart-wrenching can become over-wrenched, with too much exposure, and this type of story can lend itself to melodrama very quickly (I'm looking at you, The Notebook). But experiencing media where people openly struggle with their own inner depths appeals to me--and, this probably goes without saying, gives me impetus to express my own. Now, I'm not saying every episode of MLP is a deep journey into the inner psyches of magical horses. But it certainly isn't a show about a positive set of role models from young girls and turning them into sex fantasies. Rather, it is a show about how friends can explore who they want to be in the comfort of other friends. And I want to defend the right of those who aren't in a position to defend themselves to be able to do the same. I don't know if this post is a step towards that, but it is a step towards me realizing that I have a responsibility to do so.

Later Days. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Keep in mind, my marking time beard is also two and a half weeks old at this point.

It's been a very quiet month; it's that special time between terms, and I got most of my marking out of the way early in April, so I've been taking it fairly easy. I'll try to populate the site with a bit more "stuff" in the next few days.

As for now, here's an update from my life. I was having lunch with a friend, and I wanted to do a little reading before she got there, so I was dressed in an instructor's suit (when I'm doing scholarly reading, I tend to do that. It helps the learning flow. No really, it does.). That means collared shirt, sweater, tan pants, and nice shoes. In short order during our lunch, I broke the fly to my pants when I went to the washroom; spilt soup on the sweater; and, when attempting to tie the shoe, pulled the shoelace in half, rendering one shoe laceless.  So I hobbled home, with one shoe that had no lace, a fly stuck at half mast, and a big stain on my shirt, clutching my copy of  Fred Botting's Limits of horror: Technology, bodies, Gothic. I looked like a hobo scholar.

Later Days.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Also, I'm not showering regularly. That's a playoffs thing, right?

In honor of the tradition in hockey where members of a team in the playoffs stop shaving, I've decided to do the same until I'm done all the marking for the course I'm teaching. That is all.

Later Days.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Friday Link Thinks: Go Rub a Monkey's Tummy with Your Head

All right, so the luster has gone off the Friday Quotations. So it goes. But let's try a new weekly feature out for a spin .Welcome to Friday Link Thinks, in which I choose five links that have come my way, and briefly talk about them. Yes, it's yet another "list of things" type post.

A bit of background: back way back, I realized that the largest collection of information on new online articles I had was what people were tweeting on my twitter feed. The downside, though, is that the people who tweet the most useful links also tend to be the people who tweet a few dozen times a day, and sorting through the riveting stories of how their breakfast is going and baffling in-jokes for what I actually wanted was becoming more a time-commitment than I was willing to make. So I counted my self quite lucky to stumble onto, an online ... service, I guess... which lets you plug your feeds into it, and strips those feeds for links. You could, for example, set it for facebook feeds and blog feeds, but I set it to my twitter. (Since it's a free service, I imagine that means it's mining all the data I submit to it. With Facebook, that brings up an interesting question--do I have a moral obligation not to provide the information my friends post? They're posting on Facebook, which means that some level of privacy is intended, and yet, they're already opening themselves up to Facebook data mining. But do I have any right to give that information to yet another party? Complicated.) And now, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information. My bookmark pages are flooded, and so, I'm dealing with that flood a bit by posting some of them here. So without further ado, here's what's interesting yesterday (there's a day lag on creating the feed):

Gawker Bans Internet Slang by Andrew Beaujon. This piece grabbed my attention because, in the class I taught this term, the concept of internet linguistics, the words that we've created to communicate online, really got a lot of the students interested. And I've been on the look-out for articles with similar slants ever since. The issue here is obvious--by imposing strict grammar rules on the Gawker staff, editor Max Reed is drawing a firm line between his writers and the general internet public. Gawker-type sites get a lot of their readership from their projected persona, which is less a professional who keeps themselves separate, and more an enthused hobbyist of cool that the readership can relate to, so a memo like this is probably bad press, to say the least. It also points to the tension that exists between "proper" English and common netspeak.

The Guilt of Video-game Millionaires. by Simon Parkin. Obviously, the highest profile example of the indie "video-game millionaire" recently has been Dong Nguyen, the creator of Flappy Birds, which has been particularly interesting because he not only made a lot of money and ultimately removed the game from circulation, but also the subject of a lot of critiques that were basically centered around the idea that his game didn't deserve what it got, that it was derivative and deliberately addictive.  But I imagine Parkin would also be aware of this heartfelt post by Stanley Parable creator. Before I read this post, I'll admit I was a little callous to this issue; it feels a little "poor little rich boy." But Wreden does a great job in humanizing his position. All of this suggests that people are still very enthusiastic of the indie scene, but there's also a blowback against those some feel haven't "earned" their success. That the creators feel the same way maybe isn't surprising. As the original tweeter noted, one of the issues here is that they are all uneasy about attaching great monetary value to their labor. There's also a general awareness for some, I think, that their success is based a bit on luck, on their app trending at just the right moment. It must be a very uncomfortable position; if you're an established artist, you can rest on the idea that your skill has been affirmed. If you win the lottery, you can be grateful to whatever deity of choice that your chance came up. But the uncertainty under which held in your case--that must be very unsettling.

Selling Candy to Babies by Richard Stanton, Polygon. In-app purchases are "as of December 2013, responsible for 92% of App Store revenue." That's insane. More importantly, that means it's in Apple's own interest NOT to crunch down on unfair or unethical IAP practices. It's not just a kids-game issue, obviously, but it's interesting to see an article focus on that side. Granted, it's a bit of "youth culture panic" when you look at an issue from that perspective, but kids games in general don't get enough attention in mainstream game press (both because children games are generally on app-related stuff, which gets less coverage--at least, in the places I look--and because the game industry in general is focused on an older market these days). Issues like games that are deliberately avoiding being categorized as children's games to avoid following IAP children's games rules but still clearly marketed towards children are clearly exploitative. From one children's developer invested in IAP: "If IAP isn't allowed for kids' products then the economics are such that very few developers will... be able to make amazing entertainment for kids on mobile devices. That's a very sad scenario for all concerned." Oh, go rub a monkey's tummy with your head. As if developers are suddenly going to give up on the children's market as a profit maker if IAPs are more strictly enforced. Another case where internet law is lagging behind what's needed. I can't remember exactly where, but I think I read recently that the F2P industry is financed largely by 0.01% of its players--I wonder if that's a sustainable model?

THIS ARTIST IS PLAYING ‘CIVILIZATION’ OUTSIDE OF THE WHITNEY EVERY DAY by Rhett Jones, Animal. I was recently reading Grant Tavinor's The Art of Videogames, and one of the things he discusses near the end of the book is the claim that the avant-garde has gone too far, that art has moved too far from mass appeal, or anything relateable. I push back against that theory, because I don't think art should have to be popular to justify its existence. But something like this... I'll admit, it sets my teeth on edge. Granted, the point is that context defines art; if Diego Leclery was playing Civilization at home instead of on the street outside of a museum, it wouldn't be art at all. But that point was made very nicely by Duchamp 97 years ago, and it's going to take more than that to impress me in the here and now. Jones essentially acknowledges as much with his use of Ricard, but... eh. In a lot of ways, I'd accept this more easily if it was framed as philosophy instead of art, although I realize that on a certain level, that's hairsplitting. And there is a point to be made about the nature of videogames and creation too--when Jones notes that Ricard criticized artists getting too rich too fast, it's hard not to think back to that earlier Parkin piece. Who decides what activity with games should be valued? At the same time, though, the article's opening really rubs me the wrong way: "Art is easy." Again, rub the monkey's tummy. If art is easy, you're doing it wrong.

Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism). by dana boyd. boyd is making some very complicated claims about sex and technology here. Of course, there's a clear sense of striking while iron's hot--the obvious reason to publish this article now is that news of the Rift's sale to Facebook is very much in the public eye at the moment (and boyd's profile isn't too low either, given the recent release of her book "It's Complicated."). I'll admit, I haven't been paying attention to the Rift. There's a part of me that's not quite of the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mindset, but it's certainly of the mindset that I don't want to do anything new until I've exhausted what I've already got. Which in media terms, translates into "why build something new when we're not using what we've got to its full potential?". Which is a silly way of looking at things, since we're never going to develop anything to its full potential, since "full potential" is an abstract ideal and we live in a real world. But if there's a device that works poorly with women on a physiological level that's getting a lot of attention, then, yeah, that's an issue that needs more attention in itself. And I'll wager Facebook is going to be very concerned if the big toy it just bought turns out to alienate a large percentage of its user base.

Well, that's a lot of words, so I'll call this an end, even though it is no longer Friday.

Later Days!