When I first heard of the Diversity & Comics group / movement / controversy, I shook my head and laughed.
I called it “Wannabe GamerGate” and ignored them. It felt so inept and manufactured and forced. They hurt a few folks I know, some of whom are my friends. My advice was to shun them and move on, and that worked more or less for a while for the people I shared it with. But Lo and behold, they’ve made it. It’s now ComicsGate. they now have their own little -Gate suffix and yeah, they are exactly that: nowhere near as large or “effective” and yet trying like hell to matter. And now, they have some money behind them. And the fact that it took a year for the comics community to finally speak out, which of course fanned the flames of a fire that had been smoldering for over a year… Well, I couldn’t help but react. And my reaction was to shake my head and laugh again… This time, at myself.
I felt my old self begin to butt up against my new self. My first instinct was to rail against them, and hard. That’s what old me would have done: A longform op/ed in the pages of whatever geek publication would publish me, publicly admonishing the whole thing. But my new self realizes that helps nothing at all, and ultimately, is just self-serving. It makes me feel better about who I am by taking a shot at some guys who, I simply believe, don’t know any other way to be.
Besides, my old self already tried that tactic. And it was a complete disaster, except to say that it taught me how not to be an asshole and changed my life forever. But still, yeah… Going online and yelling and hoping it makes a difference is fruitless, and we all know it. We still do it, of course, but that’s a different article for another time.
I look at this situation now and the very first question I have to ask myself about anything I’d write on it is: “what good will it do?” And I ask that literally; not as in “what does it matter” but as in “what possible good can be achieved?” Where’s the net positive outcome? How can I change things for the better, instead of simply adding noise?
So I’m going to try to reach some of these guys. Not all of them, mind you. I can’t reach the leaders because they’re broken by default. They’re using this movement for personal gain, and like the Alex Jones and Mike Cernovichs of the world, they profit from their own feigned ignorance. So they’re off the table. They’ll never fucking get it. And I can’t reach the racists, homophobes, transphobes, or the misogynists. Hate shouts down logic, and nothing I say in an article of any sort will ever penetrate. It’s useless.
But, it is my belief that this movement, like all other swarming, loud, hate-filled movements, has a contingent of guys – maybe small, maybe not so small – who are along for the ride because they are scared. They have a love for something – comics, sci-fi, fantasy, what-have-you, that they built an identity around in their youth. They felt ostracized and possibly alone because of what they loved. Or maybe they found this love due to being ostracized and alone. And in this fandom, they found a connection and a unity that they so desperately craved, from other guys (it’s always guys) who experienced the same. And now, they feel threatened because their little circle has been broken by the masses that they (wrongly) perceive as being the enemy which forced them into isolation in the first place. It’s that guy I’m talking to right now.
Hi guy. Nice to meet you. I’m Joe, and I used to be you. And since you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ll keep reading. But the first and most important thing I can tell you right now:
You don’t have to do this.
You can learn a new way to love the things you’ve always loved, without making them your identity. You don’t lose the battles you had to fight to have the things you have, just because other folks have decided to like it. Not everyone has to cut a path through the woods to get to the other side, some folks simply walk the path you made for them. And that’s a power you have, that no one can ever take away: you find the new cool things and you enjoy them. You share them with like-minded folks, and you form a bond over them. That bond doesn’t have to carry over to your life history, your high school status, your individual abuses… It’s not all-or-nothing.
Once you let this go, you are free. Other people can like the things you like, and it won’t feel diluted. It will feel good. You will see that the world is finally coming around to something you knew all along: this stuff is cool.
Now, as I stated before: if you’re a racist, a misogynist, anti LGBTQ… If you have hate in your heart for people beyond simply feeling like your fandom is being tread upon by people who aren’t like you, I cannot help you. In fact, I’m going to be fighting you. Actively. Right in your face. I certainly hope you read this and figure out some stuff and stop being, you know… That. So feel free to keep going, if only to find a few pull quotes to try to use against me. It won’t work, because I just don’t fucking care what you think. Like, at all.
But if you’re like I once was, and you never felt any hatred against any demographic of people but somehow get angry when your fandom is invaded by “normals” or “average” people — if the color of someone’s skin, their sexual identity, their religious background, or their gender play no role in your being angry, but you’re angry all the same because you perceive that they belong to a social tier that once shunned you… What you’re feeling is something I understand deeply. And I found my way clear to let it go.
Not because it was right or wrong, or because it was some acceptance of a social paradigm that had evolved… I let it go because it was heavy and useless and I was tired of carrying around dead weight.
Some part of me has spent most of his life testing those who looked and acted like folks who, in my youth, shunned me, and yet now like the stuff I like. Putting it bluntly: at one point in my youth, I simply couldn’t believe that pretty girls liked comic books, because all of the pretty girls I’d ever met made fun of me for liking comic books. When you add in the growing popularity throughout the 2000’s of all things comic-y, and the advent of cosplay modeling, twitch streaming, and so on… The resentment built to the point that I wrote an Op/Ed for CNN lamb-basting the so-called “Fake Geek Girls” and telling them they’re not welcome. Mind you: I never, ever, not even once thought that I hated women. Most of my friends were women. My mother’s a woman, and so is my sister. I love women. I had nothing against women, not even a little bit.
So why did I attack them for liking comics? Because I thought, based on my own personal experiences and a lot of terrible, terrible logic, that any socially accepted and “popular” demographic couldn’t possibly like what I like, and if they said they did, they were either jumping on the bandwagon, or lying to make money on the back of my fandom.
It’s complete bullshit. It’s a lie I told myself, to protect myself from harm. I couldn’t bear to see this little nitch I’d carved for myself erode and become part of the mainstream; a mainstream I would — based on my own past history — inevitably be shunned from and kicked out of. It hurt to think about; the idea that I was going to be extricated from something I’ve made a part of my life, all of my life, by those who made fun of me for liking it.
First: that’s not true. It didn’t happen. Second, and far more importantly: it’s not possible to do. It’s time to learn a new way to see things, if in fact you don’t want to be a dick.
I used to be a dick (some might say I still am one, and I can see that, but at least I’m trying). And at the time, I had no idea why. But what I’ve come to learn, through LOTS of conversations and even more introspection, is that the fight I was fighting is the wrong fight. I was fighting to “protect” something I “cared” about from being used by the mainstream for profit off the backs of geeks and other outcasts. It was a lie i told myself, but man, it sounds good doesn’t it? Let’s unpack it for a second:
If I cared about it, wouldn’t I want to share it with any and all who would pay attention? “Yeah, I tried but they laughed…” So? Does ignorance in the past permanently bar you from ever being able to open up to something and learn to like it? “But I suffered for the thing I loved! They just waltzed in and took over!” Have they really taken over? Have they somehow shut you out? Are you no longer allowed to like the things you like, because they like them too? “But the things I grew up loving look completely different! Iron Man’s a woman! Spiderman isn’t white!”
But he is, in the stuff you read in the past. Why does he have to stay that way in your adult years for you to still love what you read when you were young? Did those books suddenly evaporate or burst into flames? Are they gone forever, wiped from the annuls of comic history by some sweeping cosmic SJW wind that blew over everything?
Or — and follow me here — are there more people who are socially underrepresented, feel oppressed and ostracized for who they are as people, getting the superhero treatment? I mean, just because the downtrodden socially-undesirable person in the comic who is gifted with a special power doesn’t look like you, does that make their story any less wonderful for those who identify with it?
And even if they don’t… Who the fuck cares?
What you are afraid of isn’t the shifting sands of whose story gets told and who gets to identify with whom. What you are afraid of is being left out, because your only identity is the stuff you like.
If you knew who you really are, as a man and as a person… You wouldn’t give a shit. I know, because when I gave a shit, I had no idea who I was as a man and as a person. And now that I do, I don’t give a shit. By that, I’m not saying “I don’t care” the way a teenager says it to their parents just to get them to quit talking. I don’t mean that I’ve temporarily numbed myself to these things, or that I pretend to not care because I don’t wanna be yelled at. I genuinely, truly, honestly don’t give a shit who likes what, or why.
If I like something, and someone else likes it: amazing, we have something to talk about, whereas maybe we had nothing at all in common if they didn’t.
If someone likes something and I don’t like it: it’s not for me, and I have only a little over half my lifetime left on this earth to find other stuff, so I better get busy finding the things I DO like instead of being a dick about the stuff that was never for me in the first place. I used to lamb-baste certain bands or brands or movies or other cultural apparatus in an attempt to prove how legit I was… These days, anyone can go anywhere and do anything, so long as they’re not hurting me, and I have zero opinion on it. Because I found me — not the picture of me I painted in my head covered in tattoos of all the things I love, so that I have some sort of identity. Me. The guy inside.
You need to face a hard fact: your sense of identity is anchored to what the group has decided comprises inclusion. Should you disagree, you will face the one and only fear you’ve had since the beginning of your time in fandom: being kicked out. But, here’s the cheat code: you can’t be. It’s not possible.
NO ONE CAN STOP YOU FROM LIKING THE THINGS YOU LIKE.
Read that again, because it’s actually the entire point of this letter to you. You can’t stop anyone from liking what they choose to like, any more than they can stop you from liking it. And while we’re at it, no one can force you to like things you don’t like. The most they can do is make you so afraid you’ll be kicked out that you pretend to like it.
When you’re a teenager you like the bands your friends like. You enjoy the movies your friends enjoy. You become friends though these shared interests. But once you belong, there’s a weird thing that happens… You form an identity. And once you’ve formed that identity, there is only one cardinal sin you can ever commit: doing anything outside of that identity, lest you be outcast and isolated and alone again.
These guys you’ve found yourself in league with… They’ve made it their identity to be the guardians and gatekeepers of the ever-so-holy “fandom” they’ve some to think is theirs by right. That’s all they are: a loosely connected group of entitled men who think they own something they couldn’t possibly ever actually own in reality. Because they are, in their own hearts and minds, alone. They are begging to belong. They have no purpose aside from proving they have one. Validation is a drug, and the easiest way to get it is via folks who pat you on the back when you attack your common enemy.
This is all they have (And, I would argue, it’s all you have, as well): A conflict manufactured to try and prove just how loyal and ardent a fan they are, by fighting against a common perceived enemy.
It’s even easier when that enemy is undefined and amorphous. You can attack literally anyone who stumbles into your definition of enemy – which is hilariously easy to do, because the rules aren’t really written down and can change on a whim. (Well, hilarious to everyone except the victims). And you always win because the conditions of victory are loose and movable. All it takes is for your chosen group to believe you “owned” them and voila, achievement unlocked.The narrative they’ve built needs enemies. You, sad to say, need enemies. Because you either don’t know or don’t like yourself enough to just be yourself. You need a reflection to point at and call out all the things you aren’t, so that you can justify being who you are. The so-called SJWs are good and useful enemies then, aren’t they? They’re corrupting the entire industry and forcing Marvel and DC and whomever else to pander to them for a dollar, and that’s ruined comics and fandom, and you’re not going to stand for it.
Marvel and DC and whomever else are CORPORATIONS who operate FOR PROFIT and if they see an audience for something, they’re going to SELL AS MUCH OF THAT PRODUCT TO THAT AUDIENCE AS THEY POSSIBLY CAN. And, both fortunately and unfortunately, we as a society have uncovered permanently the fact that most of us feel isolated, alone, underrepresented, and ultimately futile. And this fact is showing up in fantasy narratives to make us feel less small and more powerful. And those fantasy narratives are the exact same ones that used to make YOU feel so good. The awkward geek unlocking a secret power which makes him a stud and a hero, but ultimately still is an awkward geek? That was you, remember? And guess what… There’s others. And they’re not white, straight, or male by default.
They’re not taking it away from you. They CANNOT take it away from you. It’s in you. You experienced it. And now, they’re experiencing it for themselves.
If you’re not a racist, or a misogynist, or a -phobe… Ask yourself one very important question: why would you do that? Why would you deny anyone that experience? You already had yours. And you can have even more. Stories aren’t going to suddenly disappear because someone else read them, or made their own. There’s tons and tons to go around.
“But SJWs hate us for being straight white males, and thus, we never have to feel bad about fighting them. They hate us just because, so our hatred of them is justified.”
They hate their abusers. And traditionally, the folks who consider themselves SJWs have some history of being put upon and oppressed (or ignored) by those in power. And guess what: you’re acting just like those abusers did when they did it to you.
The manufactured conflict you are engaged in? It’s not against SJWs. It’s against yourself. You must fight to hold on to the thing you’ve convinced yourself is yours, because without it, there is no you.
I can’t stop you from being a dick, and I can’t force you to find yourself. That decision is entirely in your hands. But I will tell you the inevitable conclusion of this journey you’re on: at some point, people are going to learn that if they ignore you, they remove your power over them. Right now, they choose to engage you, because they feel attacked. But they’ll eventually realize, your only power is harassment online. Some already have, and have shut you out. And sure, you can keep hunting for more offenders, because hey, if you love something you fight for it, right? But they’ll figure you out, too. And in the end all you’ll be left with is a community of guys whose mission it is to prove to themselves and each other who is the biggest geek. Eventually you’ll eat yourselves. And you’ll be alone.
So I have to ask: is this making you happy? Honestly, in aggregate, do you consider yourself a happy person because you indulge in harassing people for liking something you think is yours? For daring to create something in the same genre that goes against what you think it should be? Are you fundamentally, at your core, a happy guy right now?
If you say yes, you’re lying to both of us.
I challenge you to love yourself. I challenge you to fight for yourself. I want you to claim the only thing in this world that is rightfully yours, which no one can ever, ever take from you: yourself. Spiderman is not you, any more than Akira was me. Sci-fi is not you, any more than comic books are me. They’re just things we like, and even love. They’re things we found comfort and connection in. They made us feel less alone. They made us feel like we had something, when deep inside it felt like we had no one. So I get it. I really, really do.
But they’re just things. At the end of the day, they’re products we bought because we wanted them in our lives. They’re the stories we paid attention to over other stories, because they resonated with us. Why, in the face of that, would you ever deny that feeling for anyone else? And don’t tell me it’s because they don’t truly love it the way you do. That’s a bullshit answer and the easiest lie to jump to when challenged. You can’t possibly know how much anyone loves anything.
Let me prove that by posing a hypothetical situtation:
I am, as has been written in various publications that have appeared across the globe, the world’s biggest Akira fan. So, how do you know I haven’t been faking it all this time, just to get some attention?
How do you know all of the money I spent on all the things I have wasn’t just an elaborate ruse to work my way into the animation industry, or geek fandom, or the Guinness Book of World Records? How do you fucking know? If I told you right here and now that Akira, to me, was just a cartoon I saw on Sci-Fi newtork back in the day and I found out some guy had a bunch of original shit on ebay I could get for “cheap” because I was a dot-com kid and I crafted a twenty year plan to set myself up as an authority on Akira, would you believe me?
Yeah, maybe that does seem ridiculous.
So, then I ask you: why is it such a hard thing to accept that the cosplayers who spend thousands of dollars making their production-quality costumes, or the gamers who spend thousands of dollars on equipment to stream themselves playing games that they also spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to acquire and play, are any less of a fan?
Their sexual identity?
Do you realize how fucking stupid that is? I mean, if you met me on the street, maybe you’d think that about me, because I bench press a lot and played professional sports and do CrossFit. If you saw me wandering the aisles of a convention, and you didn’t know who I am, you might — and very well would — decide I couldn’t possibly be a real fan. And you’d be wrong as fuck.
But not because I own the Art of Akira Exhibit and have been featured everywhere as a result. It’s because you made an assumption in the first place, and it doesn’t fucking matter what the hell else is behind my love of Akira. You’re just plain wrong for even bothering to let that thought cross your mind. Because it’s none of your fucking business how much I love anything I decide to love.
And it’s not my place to say you can’t possibly be a real Akira fan because you don’t own all these cels and you haven’t spent all this money doing all this stuff. I don’t know you. And even if I did… It’s none of my goddamn business what you like, and how much you like it. What exactly is the measure of a “real fan?” What checkboxes need be ticked to get that little badge? And who writes the test?
It’s a goddamn joke, all of it. It’s a waste of time. I’m trying to give you the easy way out, because I had to learn that the hard way.
In 2012, I wrote the Fake Geek Girl thing. I genuinely thought I was defending fandom and all the folks in it, by stating that there was some measure of what constituted a real fan, and the women who cosplayed or streamed gaming online were only doing so to manipulate us, the frustrated males who saw them as pretty girls who would normally never want anything to do with us, playing us for fools by pretending to like stuff we liked so they could achieve a measure of popularity.
I thought I was fighting the good fight. So, when literal millions of very upset people railed against me, I was left utterly confused.
“These are supposed to be my people!” I said to whomever would listen. How can everyone think I’m these horrible things, when all I want is to protect this thing that is so precious to me? It was never my intent to hurt women, it was my intent to uncover and expose some deep far-ranging conspiracy where pretty girls couldn’t possibly like comics and their cosplay and their involvement in the fandom HAD to be self-serving and for profit by subjugating my delicate entitled white straight male geekdom.
It took ten million people (literally) pointing a finger and saying “No, that’s not it” for me to realize… It was never about the pretty girls, or the fandom, or the cosplay or the conventions or the money. It was about a young, isolated, pudgy, freakishly large, awkward boy who found something that made him feel slightly less alone, perceiving it as being yanked away by the very people who made him feel so alone.
I was 36 when I wrote that article. I developed those deep perspectives on fandom when I was a child. I failed to mature them as I grew up. As a result, I was attacking entire generations for whom comics, animation, cosplay, conventions, and geekdom weren’t taboo or weird or out of place. I was attacking a broad age range of people who weren’t even born yet when I was forming my adolescent sense of self. These folks weren’t the people who picked on me in junior high. They didn’t make me feel isolated and alone and freakish. And the people who did do that… Well, they’ve grown up too. I can’t account for all of them of course, but a few I’ve talked to have made amends and apologized. So what the fuck was I fighting for? Validation? Proving to the friends and community I had joined just how big and faithful a geek I really was?
It didn’t work. Because it’s bullshit. Ultimately, I was no longer isolated and alone and awkward and freakish. I had friends. I had a group I belonged to. The story I told myself – that I was a freak and alone — was not the truth. It was merely a story which justified my behavior. And that story was a lie. They weren’t the enemy. The enemy was myself, and my need to make the things I like, my identity as a person. Because at my core, I had no idea who I really was. And I had to face the fact that this made me an asshole.
It hit me like a brick in the face: I, the abused, had become the abuser. And like all abusers, I justified it by saying it was for their own good.
That’s an ugly thing to realize about yourself. It hurts writing it just now. But I have to, don’t I? If I’m going to reach you through honesty and connect with you through my own experience, that’s what I have to do. And my sincerest hope is that it hurts you the same way it hurt me. Not that I want to hurt you – I really don’t. But if you’ve ever had surgery before, you know that in order to heal, sometimes you have to be cut. And in order to get this splinter out of your heart before it festers and infects you further… Well, it simply isn’t going to feel good. And if I’m successful, you’re going to feel that pain, just the same as I did.
I didn’t like feeling like an asshole. And I had to choose between fighting it, or figuring out what the fuck happened in a situation where I did something I thought was right, in the name of protecting a fandom I loved — that hurt so many people and ultimately made them all think I was an asshole (because I was one). That journey led me to discover a lot of things I just plain didn’t know about myself. Some because I was truly ignorant, and others because I’d been too afraid to lift that rock in my soul and see what slimy gross things were slithering under there that I was too scared to admit were part of me.
It sucked in the short term. It hurt a lot. But I did the work. I talked to everyone I could, both online and in person. I read every book and watched every video I was prescribed to gain insight. I learned a number of things I never knew before, and rather than tick a checkbox saying “yep, ok, did that,” I instead worked to make that learning a part of who I am.
Along the way, I learned another way to be. A way that didn’t make me miserable every day of my life and force me to lash out at people in an effort to preserve an identity that was based on external things. And in that, I learned who I am as a man and as a person. And that guy — the one who most definitely wasn’t a racist, a misogynist, a bigot… He made peace with the isolated, alone, scared little entitled geek in me who very much wanted to punish everyone who ever made fun of me for daring to be who I am as a person.
You’re acting out because you’re scared of being outcast from a thing you have made your identity. You don’t have to. It’s not incumbent upon you to protect fandom from a larger fandom. It’s not your decision to craft the narrative of Marvel or DC or the Hugo Awards. You can still like everything you’ve ever liked. And if you feel underrepresented, you can start making your own. You don’t need to take anything away from anyone else to have what you have. To try is folly, because you cannot control what other people decide to like. When you try, they will fight you, and when they realize you have no power, they will ignore you. And as those numbers grow, you’re going to find yourself increasingly alone and isolated and miserable.
And you only have the rest of your life left on this Earth. Is this how you want to spend it? Saying shit that makes assholes respect you? Because if so, that makes you an asshole. Like I said, I can’t control what you like. And if you decide you don’t want to like yourself… That’s your perogative.
I genuinely hope that you will, however. Trust me… The light doesn’t burn your skin when you come out and face it. And what you will see once you’ve been illuminated… Well, that’s something I’m a fan of that I really do want to share with you.
I’ll leave you with this: if this letter pissed you off: GOOD. Either you’re one of the racists, misogynists, homophobes, transphobes, or other hateful types I won’t reach no matter how hard I try, and I just don’t fucking care, or I struck a chord within you.
If it’s the first…
If it’s the second, however… Listen to that chord. What sound did it make? Did it sound like doubt? Do you think I’m way off base, and yet somehow can’t put a finger on it? Do you feel like you’re not racist, not sexist, not bigoted in any way, but your fandom is precious to you and you feel it’s being destroyed by forces you can’t control? Are you angry about that and have no idea how to handle it, so you lash out? Do you feel even the slightest pang of guilt or shame? Or, even fear?
Hang on to that. Grab it. Hold it. That’s the thing that’s going to get you where you ultimately want to be. It’s what woke me up.
I’m not trying to “fight” ComicsGate. I’m simply trying to reach you. And I need you to know, you don’t need those guys in your life to feel like you belong. You don’t need to attack anyone else and keep them out to like the things you like. You don’t need to do this. Partly because it’s useless — you won’t win. It’s not possible. And partly because all it does is put more distance between you and acceptance from the only entity on the planet with whom you truly need it: yourself. Quit living your life for the eyes and thoughts of others — both your “enemies” and your “friends” — and you’ll begin to see that it just doesn’t matter who likes what. All that matters is how we spend our time.
And you are wasting yours.
I wish you the best.