Monday, April 18, 2011

The Tale of Scott Adams and the Very Sensitive Readers

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has been trolling online forums in the guise of his own biggest fan. An example of his messages:

It's fair to say you disagree with Adams. But you can't rule out the hypothesis that you're too dumb to understand what he's saying.
And he's a certified genius. Just sayin'.

This is deliciously lame and pathetic. Why does Adams feel the need to defend himself and his supposed geniusness on websites? Can't he take a little criticism? Is he really this much of a narcissist? Apparently, he is.

Moreover, he put his foot in his mouth about women's rights in a post he already deleted (but luckily many others did not.

You don't argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn't eat candy for dinner. You don't punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don't argue when a women tells you she's only making 80 cents to your dollar. It's the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles. 

A feminist takedown of his comments here at comicsalliance. I won't write a long feminist response, because many people already have. I'm kind of glad to see his real colors, though. Somehow I'm not all that surprised.

The thing is, I used to love Dilbert. I still think the early strips were creative and original, before the strip became super popular and turned into "don't you just hate your boss?" Obviously, the character of Dilbert isn't all that original (a socially awkward nerd who wears glasses and has a dull office job). There were things, though, that were truly imaginative. There were inventions and adventures. Some schemes Dogbert got up to were really funny. Dinosaurs showed up at Dilbert's house. The strip was coming alive with ideas, new characters, developments. But after it became everyone's favorite workplace comic, forget about any developments. The strips have gotten pretty dull and mediocre, and the Dilbert empire will probably keep churning out merchandise and comics - that come second after merchandise at this point - til kingdom come, just like Garfield.

One thing that hasn't changed is Adams' attitude on mocking people. Whether it's women, minorities, or "ugly" people, he's always been into stereotypical jokes. And he's always been defensive about it.

I give you some quotes from his "Seven Years of Highly Defective People", an anniversary book with his picks from over the years and some notes. It was published in 1997. (Note that it wasn't even a ten-year anniversary; Dilbert was already being published in big books, little books, and books with basically three strips in them, so maybe the time was ripe.) I own this book, because, like I said, I used to love the strip.

In the notes, Adams takes a lot of time to dissect people's complaints at his work. Firstly, all of the complaints he got are, of course, silly and indicative only of people's crazy attitudes.
"Yes, I did get complaints from the vertically challenged." (p 33)  Next to a comic about a short guy called "Les" who insists you mustn't say his name like "less". So you know, short guys have low self esteem and always think you're hating on them! That's funny!

Another example of people misunderstanding him: "I took a lot of heat for this cartoon. I meant it to be about a woman who was gigantic in general, but it comes off as a fat joke." (p. 65). Wow, that's so weird, considering that the woman is clearly drawn fat; Dogbert makes subtle jokes like "the sherpas have made a camp at her feet" and calls her "Jabba the Hut"; and in the end, the woman tells Dilbert he "looks delicious tonight". So she's just a - gigantic cannibal? Because that's so random and surreal and funny?

(He also did a series of strips about Dilbert blind-dating a half-canine woman who had corrective surgery to become a dog. This is clearly aimed at transgendered people, but apparently he got no complaints, or at least not many enough to mention it. Sigh.)

But look at this long apologetic rant about "Tina the brittle tech writer." (pp. 179-180) Sorry, did I say apologetic? I meant entitled and asshatty.

"Do you know anyone who takes personal offense at everything you say, even if you're talking about the weather? I do. That's why I created Tina - to vent some of my frustration at people like that. I labeled her "brittle" as a shorthand for her tendency to be easily offended.  
I wanted some gender balance in the strip so I made Tina female." 
Let's stop here for a minute. So you wanted gender balance, and therefore you made the only brittle, easily offended character female. That's not balance, until you have at least as many non-brittle female characters.

So his "e-mail turned into a river of flame". Men and women alike were offended by the character! "I knew I had a winner here." Adams is so much smarter than all of us put together, he can look beyond our childish gender equality squabbles. He just wants to raise discussion, because he never gets offended by stuff and nor should you.

"I was fascinated by the accusations that Tina was a 'too stereotypical' female character. It raises a couple of interesting questions:
1. Who says 'brittle' is a female stereotype?
2. Is it possible to create a nonstereotypical character?  
Apparently there is a list of stereotypes somewhere and under the female column is the word 'brittle'. I was unaware of this list. I can't say it squares with my own observations." 

1. Apparently lots of people, hence the hate mail.
2. Maybe not. But that doesn't mean people can't dissect stereotypes and discuss them.

There's something very wrong with how he's arguing here. Stereotypes are cultural phenomena. They don't need to be specified in a list of items. Lots of people see them because they've done their research. You obviously haven't. The idea of the list - albeit sarcastic - shows how he thinks about political correctness. You don't wanna offend people, because that's so much work to sort out. So you don't say anything blatantly sexist or offensive, like "women belong in the kitchen" or other 50's wisdoms. As long as you keep away from those, people should be OK with you. That is, unless you're a tightass feminist who sees offense everywhere. Those people should have their hypocrisy blown in their faces.

Adams thinks he is doing just that by describing his mother who was non-brittle. She rode a motorcycle! She shot deer and bunnies! She played baseball! "So what is this 'brittle' thing I keep hearing about?"

Well, I don't know what he reads into the word "brittle", but isn't it possible for a woman to be athletic, a cyclist, a hunter and easily offended? I'm not sure I see the connection here.

This whole response kind of proves the complainers' point: Adams thinks women are a bunch of easily offended, annoying whiners. There's no winning with them! They just keep hating on you because you're a man! If he respected women and our views, he would have attempted to make his characters more diverse.

"Just to stir up trouble, I created Antina (the ANtidote to TINA). Antina didn't dress like a stereotypical woman, didn't talk like a stereotypical woman, didn't have a body like a stereotypical woman, and didn't have stereotypical female interests. 
My e-mail caught on fire again. This time I was accused of making fun of lesbians. Obviously there was no safe ground in this game." 

Just to stir up trouble! (Like, say, a troll at an online forum?) Not to appease your readers, or address their concerns. Just to show them how wrong they are in complaining. Also note "in this game". It's not a game for the people who wrote in. It's not fun to be offended by someone's comic. It feels infuriating and frustrating, especially if you get mockery in return.

The kind of person who gets off on such conflict is a bully. The same qualities that drove him to troll at message boards are showing clearly here, fourteen years earlier. He likes to stir up trouble. He likes it when people get mad. Why does he like it? Maybe just because it gives him attention. It makes him feel superior when others are mad and he isn't. This shows a pretty frightening lack of empathy.

I don't think Antina is necessarily a lesbian stereotype, more like the opposite of all female stereotypes Adams could think of. But here's the problem: Dilbert is threatened by Antina. He's scared because she took apart a coffee machine just for fun. His tie flattens (it's always curled up). So a tall, muscular woman with no hair, who loves math and taking machines apart - is a threat to men and a total freak show. See what monster you've created, readers! This oughta show them I don't hate women!

Adams promises to bring new sides to Tina over time: "That's the only antidote to accusations of stereotyping, but it takes a while to get there." Does it? Because you could have introduced her from the start as a character with relatable issues, a past, some positive traits, etc. At the very least, you could have done it when the hate mails started pouring in. Instead, you wasted time on making a character just to bug your readers.

It makes me mad that I didn't see this as a teenager. I thought it was all funny. I thought people complaining about a comic strip was funny. Surely Adams wasn't sexist because no men really were, feminists were just blowing things out of proportion. Oh those wacky feminists. Oh those wacky Americans.

You can't change your past self and demand money back for a bunch of faded, crumpled comic books, but I will do the next best thing and throw this book into the recycling bin. I'd rather support artists who care about their readers' feelings.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I'm not impressed with his holier than thou attitude.