Solidarity with the Etsy Strike

The Etsy Strike isn’t just about the platform increasing its fees for sellers, although that’s a wild move for the company to make after bringing in record profits for two years straight. Rather, it’s about how these fees are structured to hurt small businesses.

In essence, Etsy is forcing independent artists to operate according to the same business model and practices as Amazon. The most egregious instance of this is the platform’s insistence that we offer free tracked shipping.

Shipping costs rose steeply during the past two years. The pandemic also resulted in significant delays, and the new regulations regarding shipping packages to and from the UK haven’t helped. To ensure “customer satisfaction,” Etsy now penalizes sellers who don’t include tracking on every order, even if it’s just a single sticker. In addition, Etsy is aggressive about its policy of burying the listings of sellers who don’t offer free shipping.

What this means is that sellers are expected to absorb the rising costs of shipping. We are encouraged to purchase mailing labels through Etsy, which generally overcharges and also levies additional shipping fees on the seller. To give an example of what this looks like in practice, an artist would be expected to pay about $4 in order to mail a $3 vinyl sticker. This is exponentially worse when it comes to international shipping.

In other words, this protest isn’t about paying a few more dimes to Etsy for storefront rent. Rather, it’s about how Etsy is forcing small businesses to choose between losing money or raising their prices to levels that would substantially decrease sales. Artificially inflated prices also effectively shut out artists and crafters who don’t already have substantial online followings.  

This is only one of many instances of how Etsy’s recent policies and fee structures hurt small businesses and independent artists. The situation is especially upsetting because it doesn’t have to be like this. Although Etsy was never without its flaws, the platform was relatively welcoming to part-time and amateur sellers, and this inclusive environment resulted in record-breaking profits for the company.

Unfortunately, this profit has led Etsy to consider licensing itself as a storefront for large international distributors such as AliExpress and Rakuten, who are already operating on the same scale as Amazon. This is especially unfortunate because Etsy forbids independent sellers from reselling professionally manufactured goods, thus creating a double standard that puts actual artists at a distinct disadvantage.

Etsy is a major platform for independent creators, especially as competition to table at in-person conventions is at an all-time high and platforms like Gumroad and Kickstarter are quickly losing their viability. Even if you doubt the efficacy of a grassroots strike against a giant multinational corporation, I think it’s still important to stand in solidarity with the artists, crafters, and other creators who are taking a stand against the entire online marketplace becoming like Amazon.

You can learn more about the strike here:
https://etsystrike.org/

You can read and join the strike’s Reddit group here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/EtsyStrike/

You can sign a petition to Etsy here:
https://www.coworker.org/petitions/cancel-the-fee-increase-work-with-sellers-not-against-us

ETA: I want to acknowledge that it is in fact possible to send tracked first-class letters through Pitney Bowes, which has partnered with Etsy to offer tracked shipping directly through the seller interface.

That being said, there are two problems with using the Pitney Bowes letter tracking offered by Etsy, both of which have been well documented, even on Etsy’s own forums. The first is that this option is difficult for many sellers to access, and Etsy Support doesn’t help with troubleshooting. The second is that letters mailed via Pitney Bowes aren’t directly trackable via USPS (or via the Pitney Bowes site) and seem to have a higher instance of becoming lost, thus resulting in sellers having to refund orders.

The Reddit group for Etsy is constantly filled with variations on this second issue. One of the more common of these variations is that tracking never updates beyond “pre-transit,” making it seem as though the order was never mailed. Another common variation is that first-class letters aren’t actually tracked, with the “tracking” being more of a delivery estimate. This means that letters and packages are frequently marked as “delivered” even though they haven’t been. Because sellers are penalized for not responding to complaints within 24 hours, the easiest course of action is to apologize, refund the order, and hope that the buyer doesn’t leave feedback saying that there was a problem.

In addition, the Pitney Bowes labels are larger than regular first-class envelopes. More “professional” sellers therefore use stiff cardboard mailers even for first-class shipping, which is an additional expense, as is a label printer. What I wanted to argue is that sellers shouldn’t be penalized for simply using a stamp and an envelope to mail small paper goods, and that we weren’t penalized for this until very recently.

I understand that this may look different from the perspective of a store with thousands of sales and a smooth workflow, but my sympathies lie with artists and other creators who aren’t operating on a large scale and don’t yet have the experience (or personal connections within the community) to be able to understand things that are easy for more established sellers.

There are a lot of nuances to this argument that I simplified in order to provide an accessible summary for why so many smaller storefronts went on strike. The point I want to emphasize is that there’s no need for Etsy to be so hostile to amateurs.

“Empathy” Games

Teddy Pozo, “Queer Games After Empathy: Feminism and Haptic Game Design Aesthetics from Consent to Cuteness to the Radically Soft,” in Games Studies (2018)

Bonnie Ruberg, “Empathy and Its Alternatives: Deconstructing the Rhetoric of ‘Empathy’ in Video Games,” in Communication, Culture & Critique (2020)

Both of these articles are filled with decontextualized citations and poorly defined terminology in a way that’s become fairly standard for academic writing in Media Studies, and I have to admit that I found the writing difficult to read. If I understand the authors correctly, this is what I think they’re arguing:

(a) It’s not cool for corporations to commodify queer experiences branded as “empathy,”
(b) it’s not the job of indie game designers to sell their personal work as educational content, and
(c) we shouldn’t assume that the default identity of a “gamer” is a straight cisgender male anyway.

In order to protest being discursively commodified for an audience of straight men, a small handful of super-indie game developers have created “games” that push back against the idea that their job is to teach a mainstream audience how to empathize with minorities. I’m putting “games” in scare quotes here because these most of these works are deliberately inaccessible, while some only exist in the form of gallery performance art.

This is my take on the conversation:

I read a lot of anthologies of queer, transgender, and nonbinary comics, as well as full-length graphic novels and serialized webcomics by queer, transgender, and nonbinary creators. There are two general commonalities that stand out to me: (1) how much people love and are inspired by queer anime and manga, and (2) how much people love and are inspired by queer video games.

I understand that some queer people are aware of their gender and sexuality from a very early age, and that’s great, but I think a lot of us need to see ourselves reflected in a metaphorical mirror before we begin to understand our identity. Because every individual is different, and because relatable stories can speak louder than pure truth, these metaphorical mirrors don’t need to be perfect. They just need to exist.

So I think that, by being ironic about their work and bitter about how it’s reached a larger audience than an intended in-group of people who all attend the same expensive academic conferences and Bay Area gallery art shows, these queer indie developers and the academics who praise them aren’t being particularly kind to all the kids who maybe didn’t know they were queer until they played a “mainstream” game like Gone Home or Life Is Strange.

It’s also worth mentioning that most of the people involved in this conversation are white. Based on what I’ve read in digital gaming magazines and seen on social media, I get the feeling that there are a lot of BIPOC indie game devs, as well as game devs from non-Western countries, who desperately want people to learn about and empathize with their experiences, and I think it’s important to listen to what they have to say.

Still, I understand the resistance to the commodification of queer discursive spaces, and I appreciate the idea that people don’t need to be able to empathize with difference in order to respect it. For what it’s worth, I’ve started to see more developers use the term “story game” instead of “empathy game” during the past two or three years, and I think that makes much more sense in terms of marketing and finding an audience.

Falling Out of Love with Teaching

Dear Professor,

I’ve enjoyed your class this semester, but I need to prioritize other demands on my time during the exam period. Could you tally my grade and let me know if I can pass this class without submitting the final paper?

Please reply at your earliest convenience.

Best regards,

[Name Redacted]

I fell out of love with teaching during the exact moment I opened this email from an undergraduate student. My disillusionment with academia has always been present in varying degrees since the beginning of my career, but the shift in my belief in the value of my work was sudden and complete, like flicking off a light switch before going outside.

Professors famously enjoy complaining that their students are lazy, and I couldn’t agree less. Having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States, it’s been my experience that the kids are all right, actually. There are always going to be a few students in every class who don’t make any secret of the fact that they’d rather not be there. Still, most undergrads are hardworking and earnest young adults who have grand dreams but are painfully aware of their low likelihood of achieving success. They’re intelligent, they’re socially conscious, and they’re almost frighteningly talented. Unfortunately, for most of them, their prospects aren’t great.

As of 2021, the average annual cost of a four-year college in the United States is $35,770, and the vast majority of college students owe at least $30,000 in student debt when they graduate. The employment opportunities for recent graduates aren’t great, regardless of whether they major in the Humanities or a STEM field. Ambitious students aiming for salaried positions are often forced to enroll in a graduate degree program. Others continue to accept unpaid or underpaid internships after graduation as they chase the chance of a stable job that offers a livable wage. During their hunt for a decent job, many recent graduates feel compelled to move far away from their family and friends, breaking both their intimate social ties and the networks of connections that college life is supposed to facilitate. Any way you look at it, it’s a bleak picture.  

I teach classes about contemporary media cultures in East Asia. The discipline tends to attract Business students and STEM majors who’d like to minor in the Humanities for personal reasons but feel as though they need to justify their choice on a resume. Most of my students aren’t white, and many of them have explained that they’re interested in histories and cultures that aren’t Anglo-European. Some of them have admitted to wanting to learn about the country their family immigrated from in a space that’s mostly separate from the complications of the relationships they have with their parents and grandparents. It can be tricky to occupy to the position of teaching someone about their own culture, but it’s been a pleasure and an honor to stand behind my students during their journeys.  

What I feel that I owe to these young people, the gifted and the mediocre students alike, is to help them make their way in the world. A professor publishes research and teaches classes, but it’s also our job to create connections for our students. We write letters, we make phone calls, we introduce our students to the right people, we send them applications to programs that align with their goals and interests, and we help them win grants and scholarships and paid internships. When necessary, we do battle against the bureaucracy of the university administration on their behalf.

What students get out of our classes isn’t necessarily the acquisition of concrete knowledge, but rather a framework for dealing with the world on both an intellectual and a practical level. In the end, even if our students don’t become specialists in our fields, they will hopefully have a pleasant experience learning about how beautiful and complicated and interesting the world can be.

That’s what I thought, at least, right up until the point I lost my job at a public university during the pandemic. After I was notified that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, I was able to find a part-time job at the sort of well-funded private university that can afford to hire temp workers during a pandemic. Although I’d gotten my degrees at places like this, actually teaching there was an altogether different experience. Many of my students, at twenty years old, have a higher net worth than I will ever have at any point in my life. They know it, and they made sure that I know it as well.

For all the magic of teaching and learning, higher education in the United States is a tool of social and economic privilege. The rich use it to maintain their wealth, while it causes the lower and middle classes to become poorer. The undergraduate students who go to colleges that aren’t “top twenty schools” work hard and take on massive amounts of debt in order to have access to something that students born into wealth feel entitled to. No matter what my intentions may have been when I entered academia, no “decolonizing the classroom” initiatives, job placements, or glowing recommendation letters can account for that fact that I function as a cog in an engine of inequality. To add insult to injury, my salary isn’t even that high. American universities espouse a neoliberal ideology of “personal commitment to teaching and service,” which functions as a means of justifying their exploitation of the precarious labor of instructors.

In other words, my career in academia was like an abusive relationship. I kept telling myself that it would get better, but this was little more than a fantasy that supported my idealistic but naïve view of higher education in the United States. Nothing made this clearer to me than reading my first “please reply at your earliest convenience” email from a student who saw our power dynamic for what it was and had no qualms about using the privilege of his position to negotiate a grade.

You may be wondering how I responded. I allowed the student to pass the class without completing the work, of course. The way I see it, you either do things for love or money, and I’m not being paid enough to care.

The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’m a fan of the artist who illustrated The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I was looking forward to becoming a fan of the book as well. Since it was originally published in 2015, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy reads like a nostalgic glimpse into the history of fandom at a critical moment when the widespread rise of accessible social media brought a new generation of female and queer fans into conversation with more established cultures.

I enjoyed most of the book until the final chapter, “Aim to Misbehave: Geek Girl Feminism.”

I consider myself to be a feminist, so I have no problem with the chapter as a whole, but it was extremely frustrating to read dozens of pages about how “feminism is intersectional” and how it’s important “not to let other people make you feel ashamed of your interests” only to encounter, in the last section of the chapter (titled “Everyone’s a Critic and So Can You”), the author’s plainly stated view that geek girls with “problematic” interests (meaning interests that fall outside of the normative straight white middle-class American view of what should and shouldn’t be represented in fiction) are responsible for perpetuating “abuse.”

The author seems to be referring specifically to people who were fans of the Twilight series of young adult paranormal romance novels. I don’t particularly care for the books myself, but it’s odd that the author would claim to support the intelligence, agency, and decision-making abilities of geek girls but then turn around and say that a certain subset of these young women are somehow not “real” geeks if they enjoy something in a way she doesn’t approve of. Part of the author’s “Geek Girl Litany for Feminism” (pictured above) is, in fact, “Buffy, not Bella.” It’s almost as if the author is saying that female characters created by straight men to be “strong female protagonists” are more valid than the more nuanced and complicated representations created and embraced by women, which is absurd. I’m not attempting to defend the Twilight series, but I want to argue that it seems contradictory for the author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy to be so dismissive and borderline hateful toward its fans.

(Again, I’m not a superfan of the Twilight series, but the main critical concern I have with the books is not how they handle gender and sexuality, but rather with how they handle race. Different people in different communities have responded to this issue in different ways at different points in time, so this is another topic for another day. In the end, all media has problematic elements, and elements that seem “wholesome” now may turn out to be extremely “problematic” as time passes and the culture shifts.)

If I remember correctly, in the early 2010s, female Twilight fans were coming under vocal public attack from the men who used to dominate fan conventions and didn’t like it that a bunch of young women were now “invading” their spaces. This anger rose to a fever pitch when the San Diego Comic-Con, which was long considered to be the premier comic industry convention in the United States, was forced to institute a lottery for tickets. The men who had attended this con every year, including a number of high-profile comic creators, were furious that their opportunity for professional networking and career advancement was being by jeopardized by the sudden rise in attendance from girls who loved movies and books and comics but weren’t “real fans” because they were “amateurs” and passionate about “the wrong thing.” Saying that young women don’t belong in geek-oriented communities is clearly a misogynistic act, and the pervasiveness of this conversation in 2015 makes it even stranger for the author of to echo it uncritically and unironically.

The author apparently used to work with The Mary Sue, so perhaps it’s the case that she was simply following the party line of an online magazine that had, even then, started to publish editorials castigating female fans of certain characters in Star Wars and other geek media. I have to admit that I have even less of an emotional investment in Star Wars than I do in Twilight, but it was disturbing to watch as The Mary Sue took the helm of the crusade for moral purity in fandom that ended up leading to widespread instances of terrible online bullying targeted at young women, often young women in marginalized positions.

To give a personal example of what this editorial policy meant in practice, this is the response I received to a pitch about a popular webcomic that had become a major focal point of queer communities on Tumblr.

What the editor is essentially saying is that survivors of sexual abuse should not write about sexual abuse for the purpose of addressing the issue of sexual abuse. In other words, survivors of sexual abuse need to be silent about their experiences and the circumstances that surrounded these experiences, or their work will risk being seen as “problematic” by self-identified feminists.

This is clearly not a healthy attitude, and it has led to a number of upsetting cases of queer, female, BIPOC, and disabled creators being harassed for telling stories that are true to their experiences but don’t meet the rigorous standards of the fandom purity police. Some of these creators, such as N.K. Jemisin and Roxane Gay, survived and thrived. Many other promising creators, who were perhaps a bit younger or a bit less established when their careers started to take off along with platforms like Twitter and Goodreads in the mid-to-late 2010s, were silenced.

In many ways, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is a snapshot of fandom culture in 2015, and most of it is indeed positive and empowering. Unfortunately, however, it concludes with the seeds of the mentality that grew into what would become known as “anti-fandom” in another two or three years after its publication. Using the terminology of social justice to violently attack and silence young women (and queer people of all genders) is not feminism, and it’s disappointing to see the author end her book about creating more inclusive spaces by advocating for a discursive tool meant to keep the “wrong” type of people out of a community that can only be “positive” and “empowering” as long as it doesn’t allow for the sort of diversity that falls outside of normative straight white middle-class American prejudices regarding what sort of stories are morally acceptable.

The Internet Conspiracy Machine

About a month ago, a post that felt weird to me started circulating within my small circle of Tumblr mutuals. To make a long story short, there was a smart post by a popular Tumblr artist that someone had reblogged with an inflammatory addition. The inflammatory addition was from 2018, so I was curious why it had started circulating again in December 2020.

I asked my mutuals if they were reblogging the post because something specific had happened recently, but they couldn’t give me any background. It seemed that the reblog was nothing more than clickbait making the rounds while riding on the back of the original post. Tumblr being Tumblr, this happens all the time.

But this reblogged addition still felt strange to me. The user who created the reblog had deactivated their account, so I searched for their username to try to figure out who they are. I wanted to figure out if the inflammatory addition was referring to something specific or whether it was just someone venting on Tumblr – which, again, is fair. I honestly didn’t expect to find anything, but I was working on an academic essay on the general topic of the original post and thought it might be interesting to follow up on this lead.

What I found was that the inflammatory addition had originated in 2018 and spread within a circle of blogs dedicated to video games whose users openly identified as male. All of these blogs were only briefly active and hadn’t been updated since 2018. Their reblogs alternated between memes, game release announcements, and incendiary “social justice” posts.

I’m not sure how to explain the particular flavor of circa-2018 “social justice” posts on Tumblr, save to say that they are totalizing, polarizing, and extremely aggressive to an absurd degree. In aggregate, these posts engender a sense that there is an elite group of enlightened people who all share the same position and values, and who must foster their anger in order to stand against their enemies, who are presumed to be an equally monolithic group. Let me be clear that these posts are not about any specific real-world issues or political groups, but more along the lines of general ideological programming spread through discourse surrounding fictional characters and entertainment media. Such posts have nothing to do with critical readings or cultural critique, but instead take the form of brief and easily digestible “this thing is bad” slogans with jingoistic “people who don’t agree are also bad” insinuations.

In any case, what I found regarding the circle of video game blogs on Tumblr seemed suspicious, so I tried to figure out who these users were and where they’d gone. (I was no longer doing research for my essay, by the way; now I was just morbidly curious.) Tumblr has an optional function that allows users to crosspost to Twitter, so I ended up tracking down a few of these blogs via reposts on Twitter, where I ran across a surprising number of deactivated accounts. Between one thing and another – and this was a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m afraid I didn’t document my process as well as I could have – I ended up on Parler, a social media platform for the sort of alt-right people who tend to get kicked off Twitter.

Along with 8kun, Parler is one of the main seeds of the QAnon material that makes its way to Facebook and YouTube, and the conversations I saw on the site were completely divorced from consensus reality. There’s an excellent article about this on The Atlantic (here); but, to summarize, “the QAnon conspiracy” holds that the American government is rotten to its core, and even conservative politicians are almost literal comic book villains. Donald Trump, as someone coming from outside these evil political circles, is only person that “real” Americans can rely on, and he must therefore be defended from Democrats and Republicans alike.

At the time I encountered Parler in mid-December 2020, it was filled with people talking about contesting the election results, by force if necessary. Many of the hashtags, like #HoldTheLine, were military in tone, and people were sharing state-specific resources for obtaining firearms. There were a lot of links to videos associated with the Dorr Brothers, who oversee various regional organizations devoted to “no compromise” “Second Amendment rights.” (NPR has a limited-run podcast about this, if you’re curious.) There was also an extraordinary deal of antisemitism, with coded references ranging from “global capitalists” to “lizard people.”

I did not stay there long. I got super creeped out, to be honest.

The worst thing was that, between all the “Take Back America” rhetoric, links to QAnon videos on YouTube, and announcements for the Facebook Live events of reactionary political groups, people were sharing memes and joke posts about video games… and a lot of them were really good. To my shame, that’s why I stayed on the site for as long as I did, even after it had become painfully clear what I was looking at.

The appeal of QAnon conspiracies is that they speak to the marginalized in their own language, whether that language is video game memes, “traditional feminist” slogans, or decontextualized Bible verses. These conspiracies provide both an “it’s not your fault” justification for why individuals don’t succeed in neoliberal capitalism and a concrete path of action that elevates a normal person sitting at a computer to the status of a righteous crusader.

This sort of messaging is designed to appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re under attack from forces they don’t understand, which is perhaps why it has appealed so strongly to Donald Trump himself. Once I started picking up on QAnon codewords and hashtags, some of Trump’s more bizarre tweets from 2020 (such as “Nothing can stop what is coming”) started to make much more sense.

When Trump posted a video telling the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6 that they’re “special” and that he loves them, this also made sense to me. Trump seemed to genuinely believe, as the rioters did, that they were on the righteous side of a holy war to protect the rights of the marginalized and prevent the fall of civilization at the hands of a nebulous and unspeakable evil.

Given my actual research interests, which have very little to do with American politics, you can probably guess that this whole thing started with Legend of Zelda. There may be some people reading this essay who might feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that the Zelda series is to blame for fostering an apocalyptic mindset because [insert racist generalization about Japanese people here]. I’m not saying that the Zelda games – or gaming culture and video games in general – aren’t without their problems, but please don’t let that be your take-away point.

I’m also not suggesting that the people on Tumblr who reblogged a post I found upsetting are ignorant. After all, most people on the platform are fully aware of how misinformation spreads, and we rely on a carefully curated grassroots social vetting system that serves as something of a Geiger counter to make sure we’re not getting close to anything radioactive. We’re all doing the best we can, and a few isolated posts from malicious actors aren’t going to hurt anyone.

Rather, what has struck me about this whole mess is how the tendency toward authoritarian thinking transcends political lines. I can’t say whether the Tumblr blogs that were active in spreading inflammatory “social justice” posts in 2018 were real people who ended up gravitating to the far right or the sock puppets of people already involved with far-right groups, and I don’t know who started circulating their posts again in December.

What I do know is that “us vs. them” essentialism is just as appealing to online communities in favor of progressive social justice as it is to online communities that propagate QAnon theories. Because of the way social media algorithms privilege content that evokes “engagement,” this type of thinking can spread far beyond these communities and become normalized even for people who don’t know anything about Wojak memes or video games or Tumblr or 4chan, whether they’re financially precarious retirees or recent college graduates who have just started to understand that they will never be able to pay off their student loans.

The key word here is “normalization,” because this is what makes extremists feel as though they have broad support for what they’re doing. For every one person who creates a social media account solely for the purpose of telling an artist or showrunner that she should kill herself because her content is “problematic,” or for every one person who showed up to the riot in DC on January 6, there are thousands of people in each of their extended communities who are directly supporting their actions online.

I think that, if both young people and older people could envision an actual future for themselves as valued members of society, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so invested in fantasies about destroying society. I know this makes me sound like a moderate apologist, but I’m not advocating for “compromise” or “seeing both sides.” What I’m trying to say is this: If there are multiple generations of people who are unemployed, underemployed, deeply in debt, and one random accident away from complete financial ruin, of course they’re going to be upset and looking for guidance, especially while they’re stuck at home or trapped in “essential worker” jobs during an ongoing pandemic. This is not a controversial statement to make.

Neoliberal capitalism is irreparably broken. So many people wouldn’t be in such a precarious position if it weren’t. Something needs to happen, because people need to be able to live without feeling as though they have to fight each other to survive.

In the meantime, social media corporations need to change their algorithms. It’s unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible to destroy the platforms on which authoritarian and apocalyptic discourses are created and disseminated. That being said, these fringe beliefs should not be as accessible, widespread, and normative as they are.

The individual and social formation of identity and ideology that happens online is real, and it has real consequences. I think it’s high time to start taking this seriously.

Wizard Karen

Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?
https://www.vulture.com/amp/article/who-did-j-k-rowling-become.html

Rowling had never been a particularly controversial figure. Her books sold hundreds of millions of copies, they inspired films that brought in billions of dollars, and she used the money she made to save children from orphanages. In 2012, she gave enough to charity and paid enough in taxes to knock herself off the Forbes billionaires list. In 2020, she was tweeting links to a store that sold pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS.

Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.

“She absolutely believes that she is right, that she’s on a mission, and that history will eventually bear her out,” Anelli [the administrator of a prominent Harry Potter fansite] told me. “She thinks she’s doing good work right now.”

Yikes.

I started seeing posts attacking Rowling on Tumblr in early 2018, but none of them actually explained why people were so angry with her. When I tried asking what was going on, I’d get vague answers along the lines of “she liked the tweet of a bad person a few years ago and then said it was a mistake.” 2018 was a year of people on the internet becoming extraordinarily upset about space wizards, so I brushed the accusations against Rowling into the same category as assertions that fictional characters in Voltron and Steven Universe and Star Wars were “abusive.”

I assumed that Rowling, who is active on Twitter, had probably made a few tweets about British politics or politicians that didn’t make sense to young Americans and left it at that.

Wow was I wrong about this. I was so wrong.

This became embarrassingly obvious when Rowling made her stance on transgender rights clear toward the end of 2020 in a way that was so public and performative that it was picked up by mainstream news outlets, but plenty of signs were indeed there beforehand. The article I linked to above is quite lengthy and does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s been going on, and I appreciate that it provides the context for this discussion in a way that isn’t centered on American culture and politics.

Two-Step Tumblr Thinking

I have a theory about why nuanced discussions of complicated topics have become unnecessarily fraught during the past five years or so. This is one facet of many, of course, but I’ve had enough experience with this particular discursive mode that I think it’s worth describing in concrete terms.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr promote a style of messaging that is easily consumable and sharable. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Concise and witty observations, one-sentence press releases with hyperlinks, and captioned comics and artwork are the majority of what I share on social media, and I’m grateful to have access to this content without having to scroll through endless reams of blog posts in an aggregate feed reader.

Unfortunately, this sort of messaging tends to flatten discussions. Although I see this on Twitter too, I joined Tumblr in 2011 and have watched in real time as discussions of subjects like race and sexuality have been adjusted to a format better suited to easy consumption and sharing. After becoming more familiar with the patterns of how this tends to play out, I’ve started to refer to this oversimplification of complicated topics as “two-step Tumblr thinking.”

The basic model for this type of thinking is as follows:

  1. [X] is bad.
  2. A piece of media contains [X].

Numerous conclusions can be drawn from these two observations, but they tend to be something along the lines of “the piece of media is therefore bad” or “anyone who likes the piece of media is bad.” These conclusions in turn result in the sort of call-out culture (or cancel culture) in which relatively powerless individuals, often young people occupying positions of relative disadvantage, become the targets of anger and frustration that might more appropriately be directed at social and economic systems or perpetrators of violence and injustice in the real world.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to call out bullshit when and where it exists. Sometimes bullshit is nothing more than bullshit, and calling it out doesn’t need to be “a nuanced discussion.”

Still, simplifying every discussion of a complicated subject like media representation to “this is bad” serves to inhibit critical thinking while erasing perspectives that don’t occupy a mainstream or normative position. In other words, the demand for a flattened mode of discourse serves to reify injustice, not resist it.

To give a specific example, this is an argument I’ve made (here) about the villainous character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.
  3. But the game is not made by white Americans.
  4. Japan has a complicated history with imperialism.
  5. The dark-skinned villain comments on imperialism.
  6. He does so using (Japanese) language that invites sympathy.
  7. The games were made during a surge in ethnic visibility movements.

Following this chain of thinking, one might be able to suggest something interesting about the games and the different layers of the story and message they convey. You might not come to the same set of conclusions I did, and that’s totally fine. (I would love that, actually.)

The problem is that most discussions stop after the first two steps, so you get:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.

According to this chain of thinking, the Legend of Zelda games are racist, and anyone who enjoys the games or wants to talk about the character Ganondorf is therefore racist as well. The only place a discussion can go after this conclusion is a squabble over ad hominem identity politics, which is unpleasant even when it’s not happening online.

I’m not saying that positionality isn’t important, or somehow irrelevant and invalid. Rather, if “being allowed to talk about something” is dependent on nothing more (and nothing less) than individual positionality, this creates a tense atmosphere that encourages shenanigans like racebending (which is when white people suddenly discover their “ethnic” heritage) and infighting within the LGBTQ+ community over who is allowed to “count” as gay.

Let me give another example based on an academic article I was asked to review for a well-respected journal. The author was writing about an interesting manga that I would describe like this:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.
  3. But the manga is drawn by a woman.
  4. And most of the manga’s fans are women.
  5. The artist explicitly addresses the violence of misogyny.
  6. Many fans openly address misogyny in their fanwork as well.

What I would argue (as I’ve argued before) is that this type of storytelling is a form of collective therapy, healing, and empowerment for the objects of violence, who tell stories in which they become the active subjects and literal authors of their experiences.

If this discussion stops after the first two steps, however, you get:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.

This type of discursive flattening led the author of the article to argue that the manga advocates for violence against women and is therefore, in a very literal sense, just as bad as #Gamergate, a social media “movement” in which anonymous users sent a barrage of rape threats to female game developers and journalists over several months during the summer and fall of 2014.

I have to admit that, as a peer reviewer, I had no idea how to respond to this. One might as well argue that Joyce Carol Oates, in writing about the violence of rape, was justifying rape; or that Toni Morrison, in writing about the violence of slavery, was advocating for slavery. This sort of argument is absurd, obviously, and I don’t think it’s any less absurd if it’s applied to a story that addresses its themes through fantasy instead of with mimetic realism.

Again, I’m not saying that being able to quickly share information about sexist and racist bullshit on social media is bad. If someone in a position of power is abusing their privilege to hurt people, I don’t need “a nuanced discussion” of the matter.

I also want to emphasize that I respect people’s positions on what they are and aren’t able to tolerate in any given piece of media. Speaking personally, I have a set of topics and styles of representation that I avoid on sight (or reputation) whenever I encounter them in entertainment media, and I don’t care how “nuanced” or “complicated” the piece of media’s treatment of them may be. This is valid for me, and it’s valid for every other human being on this earth.

At the same time, I don’t think that two-step Tumblr thinking should be the default for critical discussions of complicated topics, especially not in an academic setting, whether it’s a classroom or a peer-reviewed article. Sensitivity is always necessary, of course, but “Toni Morrison was racist because she wrote about race” isn’t an exercise of critical thinking by any stretch of the imagination.

This especially applies to conversations about cultures outside of Europe. If we want to encourage conversations about “difference,” then we’re going to have to accept that people operating in the context of different cultures have different ways of telling stories and talking about important issues. Again, I’m not trying to excuse bad behavior, but I think discussions of complicated topics could benefit from more research and critical thinking instead of stalling after the first two steps.

Like An Adult

A conversation with a friend reminded me that “self-care” means actually taking care of yourself at work. “Working through the pain” is sometimes necessary in special circumstances, but it shouldn’t be expected, and it definitely shouldn’t be the default.

It’s True and They Should Say It

(Here’s a link) to the Buzzfeed article if you’re interested. It’s mainly about how people in their twenties and thirties can’t afford to live in cities anymore and feel intense loneliness and anxiety about feeling forced to relocate to the suburbs.

While I completely understand that it’s horrible not to have the agency to choose where you live, and while I understand that it can be emotionally devastating to be torn away from your friend group, I agree with the artist that the specific anxiety concerning “living with your parents” is largely based on an ideology of “independence” that’s socially constructed by a very small subset of people.

I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on whether this is a “white” thing, necessarily, but it’s definitely an American thing. A lot of other cultures, including many cultures in Europe, see the American insistence on single-generation households as not just absurd but actively pathological, and honestly, I tend to agree.

“Representation” in Final Fantasy XVI

I had to block someone on Twitter this week.

To make a short story even shorter: Issues surrounding representation in media and popular culture are very important but extremely complicated, and I’m not interested in decontextualized virtue signaling being used as a weapon to beat down individual members of marginalized communities on social media.

To set the stage: I watched the reveal trailer for Final Fantasy XVI, and I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually.

Seeing as how my PlayStation 4 plays DVD and Blu-ray discs just fine, I probably won’t buy the PlayStation 5 console, but that’s okay. Knowing Square Enix, they’ll probably release the “game” as a movie, an animated miniseries, a novel, a short story collection, a manga, a spin-off manga, a mobile-only trading card game, a series of themed deserts in their Tokyo café, and so on. Maybe I’ll play the actual game, and maybe I’ll engage with it through other media. Given that the project is still in development, this isn’t a decision I’ll have to make anytime soon.

Still, based on the trailer, Final Fantasy XVI looks like a cool game with an intriguing premise. After watching the trailer, I made three tweets about how:

(1) I like the dog,
(2) I like the Dark Souls aesthetic, and
(3) I like how this game seems to be developing the themes of the previous games.

Almost immediately, some random person whom I’ve never interacted with before decided that my positive reaction tweets about a promo trailer would be a good venue to tell me that it’s problematic for me to express appreciation about a game that doesn’t have any female or LGBTQ+ characters.

I also saw this sort of knee-jerk reaction from a few people I follow and respect, and I have to admit that I was surprised.

First of all, this was a four-minute trailer for a game that’s going to come out who knows when. “The next big information reveal is scheduled for 2021,” apparently. Although it seems as if the player will control a solitary male warrior, we don’t really have a lot of information about who the characters are and what their sexual histories and preferences might be.

Second, how dare this person come into Yoshi-P’s house and assume he’s not going to have female and queer characters in this game. Naoki Yoshida is famous in the gaming industry for hiring and promoting female staff members, and he’s been nothing but respectful of the LGBTQ+ communities that have formed within Final Fantasy XIV. All of the (female and queer-identified) translation and localization staff who have worked with him have nothing but good things to say about the creative environments he facilitates.

Third, although I may have once seen myself in Final Fantasy games in a way I didn’t see myself elsewhere, both the franchise and the gaming industry have shifted dramatically during the past ten years, and I think it’s unrealistic and unfair to rely on the four-minute trailer of a mainline Final Fantasy game for validation and representation.

Both as a queer creator (and translator) and as someone who works with and promotes queer creators (and translators), I always get defensive when people say that we don’t exist, or that the work we contribute to large projects is somehow invalid if the final product doesn’t meet certain arbitrary standards of “representation.”

When I look for representation – meaning, when I look for meaningful stories about identity that transcend mere tokenism – big-budget mainstream games are never going to be the first place I look. This is not to say that there aren’t female and queer protagonists in big-budget mainstream games, and this certainly isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see more of them. Still, I think it’s much more reasonable to expect a more specific type of “representation” from games created by smaller studios that are more invested in allowing individual voices to be expressed with clarity and distinction than they are in appealing to a broad audience. I’m almost 100% certain that there will be female and queer characters in Final Fantasy XVI, but that’s not why I would (or wouldn’t) play the game.

To me personally, it’s extremely insulting that someone would look at all the amazing and important work done by female and queer creators in the gaming industry, as well as all the powerful representation in both triple-A games and indie titles, and say, essentially, “That’s not good enough because it doesn’t interest me.”

I agree with this person that there should be more female and openly queer characters in big-budget mainstream game franchises. Of course I do. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’ve been engaging in a PLAYABLE ZELDA 2020 online campaign since at least 2015. Attempting to shame random people on Twitter for being fans of large franchises isn’t going to dismantle systems of inequality, however, nor is denying the existence of the diversity and representation that so many individual creators have fought and sacrificed to make happen.

But I couldn’t say all of this in a Tweet, so I just blocked this person. If nothing else, it’s rude to invade someone’s space for the sole purpose of publicly engaging in performative wokeness, and I don’t have the time to spend on that sort of emotional vampirism.

So I don’t care that the main protagonist in Final Fantasy XVI is probably going to be male. Once the game has been released, I might have more to say about what it does and doesn’t do regarding representation. Until then, I’d much rather devote my limited emotional resources to appreciating games from diverse creators that speak to me in a meaningful way.