On dealing with dudes: An open letter to Penny Arcade

By | February 4, 2011

These guys are probably not assholes, but are rather just afflicted with dudeness.


I read your webcomic. I’ve attended PAXs both East and Prime. I admire Child’s Play, your excellent charity organization. Calling myself a “fan” would probably be an overstatement, but I generally enjoy your work and have had little reason for second thoughts until recently.

I will not re-hash the series of events here — they extend back a good six months and given that other folks have already done the thankless work of timeline-assembly I will throw the uninformed in that direction. It shall suffice to say that you unwittingly upset some people, then made it worse by unwittingly mocking the people you upset, and then made it worse still by raising the mockery to mass-consumption levels, and some regrettable things have thus been said and done on many sides. I knew that some kind of apology or truce would be in the offing; it was a waiting game, for the simple reason that neither of you seem to be callous monsters. Sometimes the injured need only bide their time until the better part of humanity comes to the fore. The people you hurt, the people who experience this sort of shit on a regular basis, they are good at patience, and they are good at surviving — but they are not good at forgetting.

Your resistance was not surprising. It always seems as though these issues will go away if you stop looking at them, which is a function of being one of the fortunates for whom looking at them is optional. But you can’t push these conversations aside; you can’t ignore them away, and you can’t will them out of existence. You fucked up, and this is something that happens to everyone. The only distinguishing characteristic of this particular fuckup is that you did it publicly, in front of a huge audience, and in so doing you both caused injury to some sexual assault survivors whom you never meant to hurt, and created support for some sociopathic violence-worshipping misogynists whom you never meant to encourage. Meanwhile, the majority of the spectators find themselves unwilling participants in a game of privilege dodgeball — either you’re with one side or you’re with the other.

Life is not so black and white. It would be easier if it were. It would be easier if both of you were simple caricatures drawn in broad strokes, because then we could all just write you off. Nothing to see here, nothing to salvage. But you’re not cartoon characters, in real life; instead you are people. Annoying, frustrating, messy, damaged, confused people. Like everyone else.

The hell of it is, none of us spring from the womb with a complete understanding of how our culture works. Indeed, we spend the first several years of our lives being taught how to be complicit in social systems, not how to question them. People who find themselves marginalized later on may develop this skill, as much for survival as for any vague intellectual gratification. Queer folks eventually figure out that our culturally-mandated disgust for non-hetero relationships or non-binary expressions of gender makes them targets for violence and hate. People of color realize how racism in both overt and deeply subtle forms stacks the odds against their success. Disabled folks come to understand that this world is not built for them. People on the fringes learn to criticize because these cultural blocks affect their lives in palpable, measurable ways, and we are quick to recognize unfairness and injustice when it applies to us in a form we can see and feel.

People who identify as feminists and other social justice activists do not live in a different world. We live in the same world, we live in a world that values and privileges certain experiences, abilities, and appearances over others, and that is why we are so angry. Because we are as steeped in the culture that marginalizes and yes, even oppresses us, as everyone else is — we can’t simply climb out of culture like getting out of a pool; we can’t wash it off and go on our way unaffected henceforth. You are at the very beginning stages of understanding this — the fact is, you are as affected by sexism as women are. Same with racism, same with any -ism you can name. It has fucked you up too. When your [male] experience has been privileged for your whole life, it’s like a pair of cultural blinders — you can’t even conceive that the world and the people in it extend beyond the narrow field that you can see. You need help to realize there is more to it. You need someone to tell you, hey, you can take those off, you know.

When social justice activists like me talk about calling folks out on their -isms, we often make the assumption that “good” people will automatically listen and change; that being told once that something is sexist or racist or ableist or insert-offense-here should be enough. But it almost never is, because as human beings we are mostly selfish, and we don’t like feeling badly about ourselves, and being told one has said or done something terribly, terribly wrong is certain to make us feel awful. So we resist. I understand my fellow activists’ inclination to write resistant people off as assholes, and I understand the need to ration one’s sanity points in heated discussions. However, I also think that the first step in helping folks like you understand the complexities of cultural forces like rape culture, or whatever -ism may be at stake, is believing that you are worth talking to, that it is worth the effort to communicate tough ideas to you, with patience and care. I believe that we cannot afford to write people like you off; each time we do, we’ve missed an opportunity to make ourselves heard.

And so, I am unwilling to write you off. Instead, I am going to hold you accountable. I am not the kind of activist who believes in keeping people on the hook for their fuckups indefinitely. It’s not my style. You cannot expect everyone to be as patient with you. I am a battle-hardened veteran of these conversations and yet I do not tire of them — others will feel differently. For my part, I believe negative reinforcement is not effective in encouraging people, especially reluctant dudes like you, to continue a difficult conversation in which you will be expected to admit your ignorance again and again. Talking about these issues is hard. It’s hard for me and it’s hard for you. And here you didn’t even ask for this directly, and yet the conversation is happening to you, and it must happen to you, because this isn’t a single event, but rather a reality that pervades the whole of games culture and culture at large. And as tired of this subject as you may feel right now, imagine how tired those who live with it every day of their lives must be.

Can this situation be repaired? Probably not, not completely. But it can be salvaged. It will take a formal acknowledgment at PAX East from both of you that you handled things badly. Most of the actions that have been taken on all sides have happened for the same reason, and that is a desire to not be socially ostracized, trolled, or left out. And isn’t that what PAX is supposed to be for? It shouldn’t be a space where no one is held culpable for their words or actions; it should instead be a space where we strive to be more sensitive of the differences that set us apart. Like it or not, you are the only people who have any power at all to set this tone.

To employ an analogy worthy of Penny Arcade: When we step in shit, we don’t just keep walking around in those same shoes until the shit wears off, tracking it everywhere we go and hoping that in the meantime no one will smell it or notice. We scrape the shit away.

I will see you in March. Don’t let me down.


Lesley Kinzel
Game-player, webcomic-reader, and radical activist


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