Thursday, July 12, 2012

Political Correctness, Body Shaming, and Breakfast Food

I'll follow up my last AV-ish related post with a writing-ish related post. This week I'll give my take on one of those discussions I can't believe we still need to have: the crazed furor of what I call the "anti-PC police" with their odd insistence that any efforts to avoid offensive and harmful language is the first step on the slippery slope to an Orwellian dystopia.

What does my breakfast have to do with this post?
Read on!
One of the latest forays into free-speech absolutism came from a freelance game-writer and blogger named James Desborough with a post charmingly titled "In Defense of Rape as a Storytelling Device". Now, let me say right of the bat that Mr. Desborough is not a sociopath; he was not defending the act of rape but arguing, for reasons which I don't comprehend, against the idea that careful consideration should be taken  in fictional portrayals of rape and sexual assault. Part of his defense was the same thing I often hear from those who I think of as the anti-PC police; it's a free country, and he has freedom of speech. This is, of course true. The counterargument, of course, is that sexual assault victims have the right to not be re-traumatized by halfwits using rape imagery as a cheap way of creating dramatic tension. (As an aside, it's also true that an inflammatory title is a good way to get attention, but only if your first-grade teacher neglected to teach you the difference between good attention and bad attention).

How far will people go with this kind of thing? As far as we'll let them. At a recent comedy show, professional comedian and amateur knuckle-dragging semi-evolved ape-creature Daniel Tosh joked about how funny it would be if a female audience member were gang-raped right there at his show for saying that rape jokes aren't funny. But hey - he has free speech, right? Need we really be such free-speech absolutists to not think there should be a consequence for someone opining that a woman should be raped because it would be funny? There have been plenty of missing-the-point defenses of Tosh, including this one here, which references George Carlin. The difference is that Carlin knew what Tosh seems to either not know or not care about; that comedy, like all other artistic expression, can communicate deeper messages than making people laugh. He used comedy to attack rape culture; Tosh used comedy to normalize it.

In fact, all of the arguments in favor of so-called "political correctness" follow a similar formula;

  • Using "gay" as  a pejorative accustoms people to thinking of homosexuals as inferior
  • Using "retarded" to mean stupid marginalizes the developmentally delayed and perpetuates the stereotype that they can't be productive members of society.
  • Using "girly" to denigrate a man (as when baseball player Vincente Padilla recently told former teammate Mark Teixera that he should play a woman's sport) reinforces gender stereotypes of  both men and women, with men as unemotional, tough and stoic and women nurturing and gentle but weak. It tells every boy that he shouldn't display emotions and tells every girl that she shouldn't be strong and competitive.

The above, of course, are blatant, obvious examples of poorly-chosen words being hurtful. What about more subtle ones? There are scores to choose from, but today we'll take on an issue close to my heart in female body images. As fellow blogger Katje Van Loon recently pointed out, all of Disney's "princesses" are skinny. In fact, the Sea-Witch Ursula is the only overweight female character I can think of in any of Disney's stories (Van Loon has a tangential point that plus-sized women don't get to be glamorous; you should read her post after you finish mine). Recent endeavors have been better, but many of the "classics" (Cinderella, to pick the most blatant example) use physical attractiveness as shorthand for virtue and physical ugliness for evil. Does the fact that the titular character is beautiful as well as good while her antagonists are ugly subtly steer girls towards tying their sense of self-worth to their appearance? Of course it can. It also leads boys to learn that joking about ugly people is OK.
Which one here is the virtuous one? You can tell by her cute nose!

Which brings me to my last example of the day: The Oatmeal (you didn't really think I was talking about breakfast food, did you?In addition to being part of a nice breakfast, The Oatmeal is a reliably funny online comic strip. When creator Matthew Inman was faced with a spurious legal attack, he responded with this charity fundraiser. Inman deserves all the credit in the world for defending himself in a way that was funny and ended up giving over two hundred thousand dollars to charity, but check out that last bit: the "drawing of your mother seducing a Kodiak bear". 

Not only is a "your mother" joke one of the lowest forms of humor, but drawing her as an unattractive, overweight woman trying to be sexy strikes me as the same kind of "lets ridicule the fat woman" as this classic from adultery-oriented personal ad site Ashley Madison: it's the idea that a "fat" woman trying to be sexy is absurd and should be laughed at. Never mind that a growing proportion of the population actually is overweight and some of them presumably want an active, enjoyable sex life. Let's all laugh at the fat girl who thinks she's sexy. Only skinny girls get to be sexy! We see the wrongness when it's part of a message we're already primed to disagree with (you should cheat on your wife), but should recognize that packaging it with a "good" message (philanthropy > douchebaggery, to use Inman's phrasing) is, if anything, even worse as it normalizes the message of fat-shaming.

"Political Correctness" is not  a set of shackles. It's the idea that we should be cognizant of the messages we are sending and stop sending bad ones.

1 comment:

  1. *applauds* Great post! And thank you for the shout out. :)

    Interesting aside -- I actually follow the woman in the Ashley Madison poster on tumblr. She did not consent at all to have her photo used on that poster, and as she's a vehement activist for fat acceptance, some people have taken her appearance on that poster as her endorsement of fat shaming.

    Just another example of how women's bodies don't belong to them, and especially not if they're fat.