Trigger Warning for discussions of rape and rape culture. This warning also applies to all links within the article.
Look, nobody is perfect. It’s entirely probable that at some point in your life you’ll be doing your usual thing, let’s say putting out your web comic, when you unintentionally show off your ignorance by, oh, I don’t know, creating a comic strip that perpetuates rape culture. Some people point this out to you, publicly.
I’m making a whole new paragraph to repeat myself: Nobody is perfect. The idea is not that people never fuck up and accidentally stumble into topics of society, culture and privilege that they weren’t previously aware of. That shit happens, I have done it myself. My point is, when this happens to you (and again, it probably will at some point, because you are not perfect), you have two choices in how to react:
Option One: You say, pretty much verbatim and regardless of the situation’s specifics, “I am sorry. Upsetting you was not my intention. I clearly need to educate myself more about this issue. Thank you for telling me about this and raising my awareness. And again, I’m sorry.” Then, you go and do some research at the library or in some corners of the Internet you apparently haven’t spent time in before, and you educate your damn self. If you’re polite and catch them on a good day, you might even ask the person who originally informed you of your fuck-up for more resources to use in your self-education. Generally, though, you pry open your brain and dump in some new information about the world and the people in it who aren’t exactly like you, and you come out the other side a better person.
Option Two: You act like an asshole. You try and derail the dialog your fans are attempting to have with you via the classic “misunderstanding” that rape culture means forcing men to become rapists. You try to dismiss the fact that rape culture is part of a larger culture of oppression by claiming that people are “choosing” to be offended by your work. You try to make fun of rape survivors and people with PTSD via mocking trigger warnings. You even make a t-shirt using the original rape reference, thus literally profiting off of rape culture.
There’s a lot going on here.
First, I say “try” a lot in Option Two because so much of what Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade have been doing feels desperate. Their responses, which consistently try to dismiss the conversation and deny that they have done anything that warrants examination, seem to me as acts of desperation motivated by the mistaken belief that if they can shout down anyone pointing out their original misstep and their rather oppressive responses, no one will notice how oppressive their behavior is. It’s little boys plugging their ears and screaming, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” to avoid having to listen to to the fact that they did something wrong.
Then, there is the t-shirt. I have to wonder at the creative meeting that spawned the final design – in my mind, it was a 10-second event that consisted of, “maybe we should have the word ‘Dickwolves’ on it somehow-” and then the fire alarm went off and they had to evacuate the building, never to continue the discussion. Given the hostile attitude Gabe and Tycho have continued to display toward the issue, I can’t help but feel like they just want anyone who spoke out to walk into PAX East and be confronted with a wall of “Dickwolves” text at the official merch table.
Which brings me to another point – where, except at PAX/PAX East, could you even wear this shirt? Do you really want to see the kind of looks people will shoot you when their kids are asking, “What’s a dickwolf?” in the middle of the supermarket? I have a shirt with saucy language on it, too, but it’s not splayed in huge sports team style letters across my chest.
(About that sports team style…In the original comic strip, the line that drew fire from, y’know, people who try to raise awareness about and fight against rape culture, is the line where a character states he’s, “raped to sleep,” by creatures called Dickwolves. I’ve been trying to keep a pretty level head on this, but I invite you to check my logic – Dickwolves are explicitly understood to be rapists in the context of the comic itself. The shirt design is a sports team style design using the word “Dickwolves” where the name of the team would usually go and with a little wolf-head logo, as if it was a team mascot (see also: every other sports shirt ever). Is there any way to read this shirt other than, “Go Team Rapists”? I am not trying to stretch for things to critique; I just cannot figure out what this design is saying, if not that.)
So maybe you’re saying, “hey, Penny Arcade just sells the shirt, it’s not their job to monitor where their fans think it’s appropriate to wear it.” Good point, hypothetical responder! However, selling a shirt that puts forth the idea of rape as a joke is – say it with me now – perpetuating rape culture. Wearing this shirt reinforces the idea that rape is a topic that you sprinkle over your other content to spice it up a little, or that it’s “edgy” somehow to laugh about rape. And all of this over a comic strip whose actual three-panel-setup joke had nothing to do with rape. (Which, to repeat: just droppin’ rape in there to make your comic “darkly funny” or “mature” or whatever…perpetuates rape culture.)
To review: some dudes made a comic that perpetuated rape culture. This was brought to their attention. They flailed a lot and acted mystified as to why this, of all their content, is the first time people are speaking out. (Here’s one idea: maybe the landscape of the internet has changed enough over the past 11 years that the same audience that has been calling them out on their shit all along has grown larger, to the point where it’d be more accurate to say that this, of all their content, is the first time they’ve been forced to listen.) And now, long after the time to give these dudes a pass on their behavior has expired, they’ve continued to try as hard as they can to be even bigger dicks than they accidentally were in the first place. All this, and turning a profit on merchandise sales!
The thing that upsets me most about all of this is that the final wearable product isn’t very good or funny. It feels like lazy design with an even lazier agenda. It seems to me that the nifty bit of world-building the original, problematic comic strip achieved is lost. What deserves to be referenced here isn’t the fact that dickwolves exist, it’s that these poor slaves (who if you’ll recall, you, the main character of the strip, won’t rescue) have to live in an utterly awful world. And since no one else will rescue them from said world, I imagine they’d have to self-organize and come up with some way to get support and keep living their lives, even in the face of dickwolves.
So, to honor those imaginary victims of imaginary rape by a mythological creature whose every limb is an erect phallus, I came up with this idea, gloriously realized by an Anonymous Graphic Design Genius:
The Dickwolves Survivors Guild.
The shirt price is $1 over the actual cost. All of those dollars are being donated to RAINN. Thanks to the class acts at Penny Arcade for inspiring me and my Anonymous Graphic Design Genius friend to make this and use the profit to help make the world a better place.
ETA 01/25/2011: During the #MooreandMe Twitter protest, I was made aware of RAINN’s decision to partner with organizations that deny services to rape survivors who are transgender women. Since that’s, uh, not remotely okay, all money raised by the sale of the DSG t-shirts going forward will be donated to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. If I receive reports about denial of services from the BARCC, or if a national organization that doesn’t refuse services based on a survivor’s gender identity can be suggested, I will continue to update which organization receives funds raised from this project.
ETA 02/02/2011: I made this shirt as a response to the Dickwolves t-shirt, which means that this is a protest to something that is no longer for sale. Given that, I don’t see a lot of value in continuing to sell these, aside from raising a little money for BARCC. So if you’re looking to make a statement, I’d encourage you to consider making a donation to BARCC or another charity for rape survivors.