The time: The Year of our Lord 2017.
The place: Nick Spencer’s Captain America comic. No, not that one. The Sam Wilson one.
The thing: I can’t even bear to summarize it because it’s so embarrassing. You will have to read this Daily Dot overview. But basically, Nick Spencer made some jokes about the rhetorical tactics of women and minorities after a bunch of women and minorities criticized his Hydra!Cap plot twist on ideological grounds.
I died of embarrassment for him, and then I came back to life to write this post about why it’s a bad look to parody the people who most recently criticized you. Now everyone can save themselves. And me. You can save me. Most importantly you can save me from having to feel THIS EMBARRASSED.
Jokes Need Specificity
We like specificity in our humor, don’t we, team? So let’s assume for the sake of argument that when people make jokes about fictionalized versions of people who’ve wronged them, they’re genuinely doing it from a place of good humor. HOWEVER, unless they’re fairly familiar with the world they’re drawing on, these jokes are going to tend to come off like late-stage Andy Rooney: Broad, insular, and not nearly as coherent a critique as the writer imagines.1
In other words, funny people tend to be particularly funny when they’re talking about worlds with which they are familiar. Tina Fey worked on NBC shows for years and then wrote a lot of running gags for 30 Rock about NBC corporate ownership and product placement. Michael Patrick King met a couple of nonwhite people one time in Brooklyn maybe and then made lots and lots of jokes that depend on broad racial stereotypes and that’s how we got 2 Broke Girls (lucky us).
Nick Spencer is here assuming that the language of social justice is inherently funny and only needs to be roughly approximated to put the audience into stitches. Instead it comes off like “a person was on Tumblr for a sec and these are the words he remembered.” Comics have a history of making hamfisted political statements that cause later generations to cringe, and this is certainly in line with that rich tradition — but that may not have been exactly what Nick Spencer was going for?
You’re Not Doing It From a Place of Good Humor and We Can All Tell and It’s So So Awkward, Please Have Mercy and Spare Us These Pretend Jokes Cause They Are Making Us Really Uncomfortable on Your Behalf
One time I went to a working lunch where my lunch companion responded to everything I said with a laugh, a few words of agreement, and then a joking reference to something horrifically personal in her own life. Like I would say (this is not a real quote, it is an example similar to things she really said. I was too embarrassed and sorry for her to ever repeat the actual words she said), “So are you a Saints fan too?” and she’d say “Ha ha ha well they’re a good team but it’s hard to be a Saints fan when your cheating scumbag of a husband wore Saints gear all the time, you know what I mean?”
Everything she said had the cadence of a joke, yet none of it was really a joke. I have never felt so embarrassed for another human being. She was clearly not fine with any of the choices she had made in her life or the relationships she’d been in, but I’d venture to say that a working lunch was not the ideal venue in which to work through all of that. Because professionalism.
The Captain America panels are similar. A compassionate friend would read them and say “Hey man, is there something you need to talk about? Regarding youths?” A compassionate editor would read them and say “Hey man, maybe set this aside for a time when you have more perspective, huh?” They would do this because writing jokes that are a thinly veiled cover for your hurt feelings is VERY EMBARRASSING FOR YOU.
It’s Contributing to Bad Discourse
All of this would be more embarrassing than damaging if it weren’t for the fact that Nick Spencer is a notable writer in a field that’s already hostile to writers, and fans, who don’t adhere to a perceived demographic standard. One of the main purposes of humor is to enforce social norms, so the depiction of social justice rhetoric as both ridiculous and dangerous urges readers not to take seriously the demands of historically marginalized groups for equality and respect.
(I probably don’t need to say that there has never been much of a danger of the comics community taking seriously the demands of historically marginalized groups.)
Gatekeepers gonna gatekeep, I guess. And it’s working: I’ve seen oodles of women and minorities say that hostility in the comics world is pushing them away from reading, writing about, and being interested in comics. It makes me sad because I want a vibrant and diverse comics world that explores new territory instead of perpetually staying in the safest possible ideological waters.
I’m making this section a short section because I have become cynical in my old age and I don’t believe people can be swayed by appeals to morality. But in case anyone is swayed by that, here’s why else privileged people shouldn’t use their writing platforms to belittle less privileged people asking for less shitty representation:
Once You Start Down the Aaron Sorkin Path, Forever Will It Dominate Your Destiny
You know who enjoys to settle scores in his art? Aaron Sorkin, y’all. Aaron Sorkin has been smug for his whole career (see for evidence, litrally any Sorkin stand-in character in litrally any show ever), but his smugness has reached chronic levels now. He used to be Prestige Guy, and now he’s Old Man Yells at Internet Guy. It’s not that there’s no audience for that but um, let’s just say that audience has an expiration date.
In the second season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey spent an entire episode making fun of people who criticized the first season for a stereotypical depiction of Kimmy’s boyfriend Dong. The episode was nigh unwatchable due to the naked anger it displayed towards Tina Fey’s critics under the faintest pretense of joke-making. When I saw it, I thought, OH NO SHE IS AARON SORKIN NOW.
You don’t, you do not want to go down this path. Aaron Sorkin used to get in slap fights with Television without Pity, and then when interacting with live human recappers didn’t pay off for him, he wrote an episode of The West Wing fictional-him (Josh Lyman) got into fights with fictional straw-man versions of the recappers, whom he characterized as fat basement dwellers one and all. Since many of the recappers at Television without Pity continued in their professional careers as pop culture critics, including Linda Holmes at NPR and Tara Ariano at Previously.tv, this humiliating moment in Aaron Sorkin’s history will never ever be forgotten. It’s going to follow him forever.
Here’s another thing Aaron Sorkin did: He had a relationship with Kristen Chenoweth that ended, as relationships do sometimes, and then he wrote an entire show in which fictional-him (Matt Albie) won argument after argument with fictional-Kristen Chenoweth (Harriet Hayes) until she was so won over by his superior intellect and moral character that they got back together. See why you don’t want to start down this path? See the monstrously mortifying ends to which it leads?
There you go. This is why not to do what Nick Spencer did. Now I feel I have done my bit for America and I can return to the former comfort of being dead from secondhand embarrassment.
- Unnecessary shade on Andy Rooney, I hear you say! Look, I know, but his columns those last few years were “Old Man Yells at Cloud” to the max. ↩