How to reopen a wound
WARNING: This post deals with sexual assault.
But something seems missing in the responses from Mike and Jerry, the creators of Penny Arcade. They talk about their disapproval of rape, their confidence in their own funniness, and their right to free expression. But they never address what, to me, should be a core concern for them… something which, at the very least, is worth addressing:
Their art has traumatized people.
So let’s look at the mechanism by which that happens. On August 11th of last year, Penny Arcade posted a comic featuring a rape joke1:
The incontrovertible fact about this comic, which Mike and Jerry have never really addressed, is that many rape survivors are traumatized by depictions like this.
Not offended2, traumatized.
Rape survivors will read this comic. Some of them will experience flashbacks to their rapes. Their schedules will be disturbed, maybe for a few minutes, maybe for a few hours. Depending on when and how their rape happened, what ensued, and what other triggers are present, maybe longer. Instead of simply reading a funny comic about gaming during lunch, they will read this comic and need to spend some time doing self care to get them back to the point where they can do their jobs, or take care of their kids, or whatever they were doing. Some will go right back to work and put it out of their minds. Some will go to the unisex bathroom and cry–quietly, so as not to alert their coworkers–for 20 minutes.
Again, that this happens sometimes is an incontrovertible fact. It is one of many normal behaviors for someone who has been raped.
People attempted to explain this to Mike and Jerry. But I don’t think the message got through, because they responded by defending their sense of humor, defending their right to free speech, and continuing to make jokes about rape, and jokes about the rape survivors’ complaints.
Notably, they created this t-shirt for themselves and their readers:
Now I understand that this t-shirt is satire, and I think satire is vital to a free society. But I also thing satirists have the same responsibility as anyone else to understand and take into account the practical effects of their actions.
Who would wear a shirt like this? The target audience seems to be “people who think rape jokes are not a big deal”, right? So again, while being staunchly “anti-rape”, Penny Arcade is encouraging people who think rape jokes are no big deal to advertise that fact widely and publicly within the Penny Arcade community, with the blessing of the community leaders.
For those gamers who were traumatized by the original comic, they will now be re-traumatized again and again and again by people wearing this shirt whenever they attend a gaming event. Not everyone, but some people. This, again, is an incontrovertible fact: some survivors will be seriously traumatized by these shirts.
Now, Penny Arcade removed the shirts from their store, after selling them for several months, supposedly because they wanted people to feel safe at their gaming conference, PAX. Yet Mike said he’d still be wearing his to the conference:
And still, as recently as yesterday, they continue to defend their right to express themselves freely:
“when it comes to expression nothing is off the table. It is the creator’s prerogative to create something – even something grotesque – out of anything they can find”
I can’t help but feel they are missing the point. I support their free expression. But why haven’t they responded to the fact that their art is hurting a small group of already suffering people? Why do you say “if you don’t like it don’t read it”? How are rape jokes more important to you than having rape survivors as welcome members of your readership?
1 Some people have suggested that absurd gameplay mechanics, not rape, are not the punchline of this joke. But if the punchline is “Quest Complete”, and the subtext of that line is “I did what I came for, and I am going to leave you here to be raped” then rape is very much at the center of what makes the joke “punch”.
2 It is irresponsible to lump together people being “offended” and people being “hurt” into the same group. Sometimes Christians are offended by atheist billboards. Sometimes meat eaters are offended by the suggestion that eating meat is wrong. “Offended” means that someone’s ideas are distasteful to you. Offense is academic. Sexism is not about being defended, it is about society holding women back. It is about fairness and suffering, not offense.