Early this year, I wrote an analysis of an interview Alan Moore did with Pádraig Ó Méalóid. One day after it went live, I learned that the “Batman scholar” referenced in the interview (whom I’d discussed at length in my analysis) was in fact Will Brooker, not just some angry guy on Twitter, as the interview had represented. Upset that I’d failed to do my research and had perpetuated this misrepresentation, I wrote an apology to him and ran it as its own post here on Sequart.
As I was finishing that, I learned that the person referenced in the interview as an angry fan was in fact Pam Noles, whose criticisms of Moore’s use of the Golliwogg in The Black Dossier weren’t at all the simplistic arguments the interview responded to. So when I wrapped up my apology to Brooker, I immediately began the first draft of this apology to Noles. I hadn’t discussed Noles (or the angry fan, as she was represented in the interview) in as much length in my original analysis, but I thought parity was in order. Since I wasn’t as familiar with Noles as with Brooker, I started reading her work.
While I was doing this, however, I realized that the original analysis needed immediate updating, because it was still perpetuating the interview’s misrepresentations of Brooker and Noles, as well as some other matters. That needed correction ASAP. So I spent a day extensively annotating the original analysis — which I didn’t want to hide or delete. These annotations identified and corrected the misrepresentations of Brooker and Noles, and corrected where I’d exonerated Moore based on the dismissive caricatures of their criticisms. I felt conned by this interview, but I’d made the mistake of repeating and analyzing it at face value, and I felt terrible to have perpetuated what I regarded as its silencing gesture towards legitimate criticism.
The days the followed were an 18-hour-a-day flurry of responses on email and social media, during which it became clear to me that annotating what I’d written wasn’t enough. I had thought it was a good way of preserving the record while correcting its errors, but the original piece was fatally flawed, and to have as many annotations as original material was bizarre. The piece had to go away. And, I realized, so did I, at least as a regular Monday contributor. So I spent a few days composing a replacement post, in which I stated my intention to finish that separate post apologizing to Pam Noles.
And then I collapsed. My body needed to recuperate after running at non-stop high-stress for so long. And then I had to shift my focus onto She Makes Comics, which we had been planning before this all started. From there, I resumed the daily deluge of stuff that needed to get done a month ago.
Of course, what got lost in all of this was finishing an apology to Pam Noles. I said I’d do it, and it shouldn’t have taken this long.
I’m sure part of this delay was feeling that I couldn’t find the words. I never finished that first draft. And I’m being honest with myself, I think part of my delay was wrapping my head around what I’d done. “Sorry, here’s who Pam Noles is” didn’t seem to cut it. I owed Pam Noles something bigger. Brooker’s arguments, I’d simply misrepresented. But Noles, I’d misrepresented in a way that was also racist — or at least thoughtless about the racial context in ways that were uniquely upsetting.
So let me start simply.
Pam Noles, I’m sorry.
Your work is important. It’s not only legitimate and deserves acknowledgement, but you know your stuff. What you’ve written is a real contribution to the conversation about comics and popular culture, their racial representations, how they negotiate our cultures’ racist past, and how we understand appropriation of past racist material.
It was never my intention to misrepresent or minimize your work. I took the interview at face value, which meant I ignored that you’d produced a body of work on the subject of the Golliwogg as used in The Black Dossier. Instead of portraying you as a scholar with important insight that deserved thought and respect, the interview represented you as a fan who once said a few negative and not-too-impressive sentences at a signing. This misrepresentation wasn’t only dismissive of you and your work. It was wrong. And I feel terrible to have perpetuated it.
For that, I’m very sorry.
The way I initially described you also perpetuated racial stereotypes. The interview identified you as an angry fan who happened to be a black woman, and I repeated this information. Through some clunky sentences that put these pieces of information a bit too close to one another, I created the impression that I saw some connection between them. I can plead that I only made this mistake because I couldn’t imagine such a connection, but that only underscores how catastrophically I failed to be conscious of the obvious fact that there’s a long history dismissing African-Americans — and particularly African-American women – as irrational and angry. And while it’s easy for me to know my intent, this history is a matter of fact, and the specific words I chose escaped my design and wound up perpetuating this abhorrent, anti-intellectual, and anti-democratic stereotype.
That was hard to type. But it’s true. And I’m so sorry that it is.
I also want to acknowledge that, in apologizing to Will Brooker so quickly and so fully, yet getting sidetracked in apologizing to you, I left the impression that you and your ideas somehow count less than his. Unfortunately, this same impression is left every day, by fans and critics who treat the ideas and voices of men and whites and people with doctorates as more legitimate than other voices. I repudiate these double standards. And to the extent that my actions may have perpetuated them, or may have been seen to legitimize them, I’m terribly sorry.
I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long to do what I promised months ago.
Pam Noles, you deserved better.
To everyone reading this, in the hopes that something good might come of my various fuck-ups here, I encourage everyone reading this to do yourself a favor and do what I failed to do at the start: check out Pam Noles’s blog. I also strongly recommend her excellent 2006 essay on whitewashing in sci-fi and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Pam Noles does good, important stuff, and it’s well worth your attention.
For the record, neither she nor Will Brooker ever asked me to apologize, and both were far kinder to me about all of this than I ever could have imagined.
I don’t know Pam Noles personally. I’ve talked with her a little on social media, and she’s been kind. I’ve Googled her and read her work. She’s got an impressive resume and has been published by Warner Books and Dark Horse Comics. She’s a real geek, and that ought to be a great thing.
But while I don’t know a whole lot about her, I do know there’s nothing to be gained, especially as a woman, especially especially as a black woman, by saying anything critical about gender or race in comics. No matter how correct or insightful the observations might be.
Once my fuck-up hit social media, I learned was that it was absolutely routine for female critics to get not only death threats but rape threats. I had no idea, and was of course appalled. Seriously, who the fuck would do such a thing? Maybe I had spent too much time in the ivory tower, but this was totally outside my experience. I’ve heard of people getting lots of reactionary fanboy comments when they dared address social issues. But I’d never heard of rape threats, except maybe in a TV documentary about a celebrity or something. I very rarely read comments on any site but this one. I’ve faced a few, isolated death threats in my non-online life (and once a whole lot of harassment), but I’ve rarely gotten an angry email or comment for anything. Sequart publishes female authors (not nearly enough) and social criticism. And it gets good traffic, especially on popular posts. But whether it’s the culture here or that people actually have to log in to post a comment or whatever, Sequart rarely even gets rude comments. And I think klaxons would go off if we ever heard that one of our contributors got a threat, let alone a threat of rape. It’s never happened once.
Yet once I’d heard about this, I started asking around. And every woman I talked to said harassment was pretty common on social media, generally, but it was really common for female critics of comics and geek culture. In fact, it had pretty much happened to everyone, especially if they dared to talk about race or gender. It was like a certain percentage of men couldn’t wait to put any woman who dared to speak about these issues “in her place,” and thought the most despicable sort of threats were a good way of doing so.
To make matters worse, many of the smartest women I talked to said that they’d stopped writing about comics because of this kind of harassment. Which should come as no surprise. Who’d want to put up with this? A week of random people saying I was racist or just defending other people with Ph.D.s was enough to make me collapse from stress. Heck, I still can’t think about it without feeling nauseous. And while I now realize a few of those people were trolls (all were white men, I think), the vast majority of them were respectful and had totally legit points! And it still totaled me. Now, how would I feel if I experienced this whenever I dared to open my mouth about even a mildly controversial issue? Or if that small percentage of trolls I encountered increased astronomically? And what if this trolling were escalated to include some truly hateful shit focused on my gender or my race or my identity in any other way? What if this hate routinely included threats, up to and including rape? I wouldn’t want the bastards to win, and I’d still care about what I was writing. But it probably wouldn’t take long before I’d say “fuck this.” The stress — the physical and psychological toll it takes — wouldn’t be worth it.
That’s not being weak, by the way. It’s being practical. It’s cost-benefit analysis.
Yeah, this brought the privilege home.
And it’s not like I didn’t know I was privileged already. And yet… almost no problem whatsoever with anything I’d ever written. Compared to harassment, hate, and threats so routine that most women I asked about this basically said, “Well, yeah, of course.” As if it’s just something that goes with the job. You know, the job of being a woman, or a minority, and having something to say.
Of course, the ultimate demonstration of my privilege is that I wasn’t even aware of this.
What could be worse than this appalling situation? How about the fact that women critics haven’t spoken up about it. And that’s not only because it’s so common that this kind of harassment is just a fact of life for so many of them. It’s also because no one seems to care. The cops aren’t a lot of help, from what I hear. If you speak up, you just get more of it. So if you want to be a woman who talks about geek stuff, you learn to be quiet about this.
Hopefully, this is starting to change. Since all of this happened early this year, Janelle Asselin got rape threats on CBR for daring to criticize a comic cover. The story blew up, and women started speaking up about how common this is. More and more women have come forward to say they’ve experienced this kind of treatment. Thankfully, we’re also talking about sexual harassment at comic conventions. It’s remarkable how much the silence has broken, but there’s still so far left to go.
Because this behavior is totally intolerable and has to stop. Period. Full stop. Now.
Let me just say to anyone who’d send such a message, you’re despicable. I hope you know you’re acting like the lowest and most cowardly kind of bully. All your heroes would stop you, if they were real. You might think you’re defending comics, but you’re a scourge upon them. You’re our shame. Studies suggest you’re probably a sadist, but you’re presumably too repressed to try sadomasochism with a consenting adult, so you’re emailing people. Obviously, your masculinity is so insecure that a woman daring to have some thoughts, or someone daring to criticize a comic or a creator you like, is some kind of identity-threatening thing for you. I’d much rather you come after me, but you probably won’t, because trying to intimidate men doesn’t give you the same sick, pathetic feeling that you might just be a man, in spite of all available evidence.
And here’s the really bad news: you’re not even special. The odds are good your target will just delete your emails and make a mental note that there’s one more pathetic asshole out there. #400, that’s what you are.
If you read Pam Noles’s Golliwogg posts, there are signs she’s not unaccustomed to this sort of harassment. Signs that plenty of people have emailed her to dismiss her out of hand, or to throw their academic credentials in her face, as if that trumps any logic or textual citation she may provide.
Noles implies she’s received many such messages. This one was only even worth mentioning because it had her former address on it.
Think about that for a second.
And when I told her that I was finally going to write this apology, she said she’d be on alert for the flurry of invective-filled emails. That’s how she knows someone’s linked to it.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I hope it horrifies you. It better. It certainly does me.
Someone can’t even try to make verbal restitution for wronging Pam Noles without her having to brace for the hate mail.
So you see what this means, right?
This is part of the context too. It’s also about privilege. And gender. And race.
Because when I wrote what I wrote, mistaken or not, I probably sounded a lot like those assholes. You know, “ha ha, these aren’t serious concerns, whatever.” I can totally read what I initially wrote in this way now. But at the time, comfortable and naive in my privilege, these were just abstract intellectual points, made in response to the interview and largely divorced from wider context beyond authorial self-fashioning. I actually had trouble understanding why people didn’t see that my points were at least good analysis, given that I presumed the interview to be correct. “Because you’re saying all these asshole things,” someone might have said. And I still wouldn’t have gotten it, because I would have thought it was so obvious my points were intellectual and couldn’t bear any resemblance to any such assholes.
You know, there’s a difference between knowing abstractly that people sometimes say twisted shit and really realizing how common the most vile, disgusting invective is about these issues. That it’s a part of comics culture, which I’m a part of, to do this to women, as if it’s just a gauntlet they have to run if they’re going to do anything but look pretty talking about how awesome the newest whatever was.
So… when I was sounding like these assholes? Yeah, the interview wasn’t that old then. Which means everyone involved was probably getting a fresh deluge of vile hate mail in response. I really hope no one read what I wrote and added one more hateful message to that. But whether or not they did, I’d kind of added my voice in public to their disgusting invective. I’d inadvertently lent my name and credentials to the idea that it was okay to dismiss these concerns and these critics. “It’s all good, guys!” I had no idea I was saying.
Even when I was trying to apologize, I would up reminding some of those assholes who throw their little degrees around, as if this makes what these pricks have got to say more important than a black woman. You know, even if she’s right. Just beat her with your piece of paper. If she doesn’t recognize your innate masculine superiority, she’s gotta recognize that, right? Merit need not apply.
That’s all some terrible shit to do. Yeah, none of it was intended, but it’s horrifying to think I could have been so unaware, or in any way whatsoever legitimized this kind of routine, dismissive, disgusting treatment.
And when you know that’s going on, that there are these hordes of assholes doing this thing, if you really feel compelled to say something that in any way agrees with the monsters, you take pains not to sound like one of them. For example, you might disagree with a female critic and think it’s fine for Wonder Woman to be bending over or on all fours for no discernible reason. It’s a bit of fun, you think. But I bet you’d put this a lot more tactfully and respectfully (if you still felt compelled to say anything) if you knew there was a fair chance this female critic was getting rape-death threats.
You know, just because you don’t want to be a complete and total dick.
And that’s a perfect illustration of how my initial failure, in not doing my research, was such a fatal one. Because it would have revealed first that Pam Noles was the person anonymously dismissed as an angry black woman with no argument, and then that she’d received (God, I really have to type this) racist invective-filled threats of rape and death so often that it’s not even worth pointing out unless they come with her address.
I failed at this. I’m still horrified to think about it.
And for this too, Pam Noles, I am sorry.
It’s important to me that people understand this isn’t either self-flagellating or self-aggrandizement. Know how I got to the realization of this larger context? By getting off my privileged, these-are-good-intellectual-points-I’m-making pedestal and asking people about their experience. Some people were kind of enough to open up to me.
Cue crushing waves of horror.
And since we’re talking about the state of comics culture here, let’s agree that part of expanding comics and various geek communities isn’t just asking others to buy what you buy. You can’t expect people to join only if they agree to act and think just like you. That’s some Borg shit, and you’d think geeks would know better than that. People have different experiences and perspectives, and part of creating a welcoming and diverse environment is making room for those different perspectives. Sometimes, that’s hard, because that’s how perspectives work: you can each look at the same thing from a different perspective and see very different shapes, each of which seems as clear and obvious as if it were right in front of you.
Understanding another perspective doesn’t just make comics a better, more tolerant place. It also lets you see what it is you’re talking about more fully. And that makes you better, as a thinker and a person.
And so to Pam Noles, let me say something besides an apology. Let me also say thank you.