Men vs Women vs Men – What Role Do Straight White Men Have in Ending Harassment in Comics?

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Comic above from here: http://www.listen-tome.com/save-me/

Last week I wrote an editorial for Bleeding Cool about diversity, harassment, threats and trying to understand each other. You can read it right here and you should before continuing because this blog talks about it and some of the things that came up because I wrote it.

I was hesitant to write the editorial for a lot of reasons. One of them was because I knew that me being me (33 year old white male, straight, married, west coast USA middle class) was going to become part of the story. I realize that not everyone agrees that 33 year old, white straight men have an inherent privilege but I’ve experienced that privilege in my life and I believe I have. I’m mindful of it and the role it plays in people’s impression of me and my ideas. I think I have to be and that’s perfectly okay. When I was in school and I raised my hand, teachers called on me. When I’m at work and I demand a raise, I’m praised for having initiative. Those aren’t the responses other people get for the exact same behavior. I became incredibly aware of this in college when I would interact with professors and I would notice other students, most of them shy or regularly dismissed, didn’t have the same relationships with the professor. The good professors made an extra effort to engage those students and I made an extra effort to encourage them and support them by not talking over them, by giving them a chance to answer a question about Beowulf or just by taking their point of view seriously when I was faced with it. I don’t consider this commendable behavior. I consider this the bare minimum I need to do to not be a jerk.

So, enter my piece from last week and a lingering question about whether I, or any similarly privileged straight white man, should or needs to get their straight white man opinion in about an issue that has a lot to do with things that don’t directly impact me. I want to immediately revise and expand on that thought because I think it’s absolute bullshit. Sexism does impact me. It impacts my wife. It impacts my friends. If I have a daughter someday it will impact her. There is not a man planet with a man ecosystem and a separate woman planet with a woman ecosystem. Still, the question remains – what role do I have or should I have in this dialog?

Heidi MacDonald, posted an impassioned call to arms to men specifically – it’s actually something I read that galvanized me to write the editorial:

And you know what? This is not women’s problem. This is MEN’S PROBLEM. I know most internet trolls are teenaged boys who don’t know any better, but this is MAN’S THING. This is something you men need to figure out and condemn and deal with. There should be MAN RULES about it, like how you’re not supposed to go into the urinal next to another guy, that kind of thing. Belittling, embarrassing, threatening and shaming women should not be some kind of masculine rite of passage. It should be the opposite of being a real man.

MacDonald has no standing or obligation to speak for all women about what men should and shouldn’t do about sexism and harassment in comic books but she wrote something that struck a chord with me and with others. She’s also someone I respect a great deal and I would consider her one of the dozen or so really noteworthy comics “pundits.” So from her point of view, men need to call other men out. I was doing that (I was going beyond that but also that).

Awesome. So, I should get my straight white man costume and rush in to help, right? Not so fast. There’s another point of view on this shown in this series of tweets from DC Women Kicking Ass that indicate a sense of resentment for men getting active in the debate:

Got an email from a guy who thinks the treatment of women in comics has reached an apex and it’s time do something. Sigh.

Oh and it’s also time to talk about the treatment of female characters, gays and POC in comics. Clearly my job is done.

Good job ladies fighting the good fight but the dudes are here so you know go, um, yeah we’re dudes.

I totally understand where DCWKA is coming from. Women in comics, people of color, gays – they’ve been marginalized and they have been fighting the good fight by necessity for years and years and self-righteous straight white guys coming in and saying “all right, little lady – we’ve got this” is remarkably and overpoweringly condescending. I don’t know the full context of what DCWKA was responding to but I see this sentiment, this veiled (and sometimes not at all veiled) resentment for straight white men trying to get their straight white man fixing hands on things.

There’s a secret weapon that people have in arguments about these topics: the dreaded White Knight argument. The way this argument works is that if an outsider tries to comment or vaguely kind of help a marginalized group that outsider is only doing it because he’s a White Knight and gets satisfaction for riding in to the save the day. This term and argument dismisses any sincerity, misplaced or patronizing though it may be, from the accused White Knight. Because the White Knight secret weapon hinges on what a person’s internal motivations are, it’s virtually impossible to convince someone that you’re not trying to help out of self-interest but out of genuine selflessness. And the worst part? There’s invariably some self-interest in trying to help someone. Personally, I define myself as the sort of man that will always stop and help someone that needs a hand, that will always try and talk about things and find consensus and common ground. I’m an idealist. It’s central to my sense of self. So, when I read Janelle Asselin’s now well-known Tumblr post about getting threatened and when I read Heidi MacDonald’s call to arms, I wrote my thoughts with complete sincerity and I know there was some part of me that needed to do it because it’s important to my self-worth that I’m a good guy and I do the right thing. I’m a white knight. I’m also passionate about changing comics culture for the good and I’m trying in every way I know how to help with that change and not be a condescending dude. But you can see the contradiction here.

Are men getting involved “just” White Knights and should they check themselves for privilege and patronizing? Or are men a critical part of the dialog and compelled to loudly voice dissent when another man behaves badly? I think the answer is both as long as neither are used as cause to shut down someone’s contribution. All of us guys that want to help, we need to be really mindful of being fixers and assuming that we have some secret answer because we just figured out that sexism and racism and all of the worst isms still exist in the world. But at the same time, I’d like to see the White Knight argument retired. It’s fair to question someone’s sincerity and to call them on their self-interest and force a little perspective but it’s still a smug argument killer to say, “yeah, well, you’re just a white knight.”

Ideally the effort to improve comics and all of society should be an all hands on deck kind of scenario. My contribution to it is not special or unique because I’m a straight white man and I also don’t think it’s any less significant either. I don’t think being suspicious of White Knights is any kind of misandry or that men are really suffering under the yolk of unfair judgments. I do hope that our intentions become clear but more than that our actions demonstrate those intentions and that all of us keep talking about this and working together.

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