Why Captain America is (not) Perfect

[Content note: racism, white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, disablism, elimination of disabled people, whitewashing, anti-semitism, holocaust, genocide, homophobia]

Seen this comic recently?

Captain America, fauxgressivism, progressivism, diversity in comics,

Captain America, Nazi, Naziism,

Captain America, Nazi, Naziism

Credit: Tony Wilson and Andrew Bridgman at Dorkly

Probably you have. It’s been making the rounds on tumblr/literally everywhere else. I’ve seen it on my dash a couple dozen times. And it makes me super-uncomfortable.

Until yesterday, though, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t quite articulate why I didn’t like it, and once I figured it out… well, I had other shit to do. A lot of social-justice type people were reblogging it, and I really didn’t want to get in an argument. Despite popular belief, I don’t look for fights.

A few days ago, I dipped my toe in the water. I saw the comic on my dash, and I reblogged it with a note saying: “Yes, but why does smashing the nazi ideal have to involve a white dude?”

Immediate response: “^ Go back and read the comic this time.”

Ah, the internet.

A couple more reblogs, and I got this explanation:

“The Nazi ideal of the perfect man is a white man. Sure, having a black man be Captain America would be awesome, (Or hell, a native american/Indian) But the problem of having a POC Captain America fighting Nazis is the fact that the Aryan master race consider […] POCs to be racially inferior to them. A POC Captain America to Third Reich wouldn’t inspire fear, just the belief they could defeat him…not that could ever happen.

But by having a white, blonde, blue-eyed Captain America? The Nazis are doubting themselves. Here is a man going through and destroying your war machines, and he’s the perfect description that Hitler enforced that should be a soldier on their side. White Captain America is a middle-finger to the Nazis.” (the entire tumblr exchange here)

In the past couple days, I’ve gotten four people pushing back on my point that Captain America’s whiteness does not make him perfect.  This doesn’t sound like a lot – but on my tumblr? – it’s a lot. My significant other, who was reblogging my Captain America posts (with added commentary) got his second anon message ever… from someone insisting that Captain America must be white.

I think there’s something going on here.

****

(Note: I am aware that there have been non-white Captain Americas. But this comic is pretty clearly talking about the Steve Rogers’ Captain America, and that’s what I’ll be addressing here!)

Look, I like Captain America. I like Captain America a lot. The Winter Soldier is still my favorite post-Avengers movie in the Marvel franchise, and I want ten more Captain America/the Falcon romantic-action-comedies right now (THEY BELONG TOGETHER).I think white, blond, Chris Evans is great as Captain America. I like Captain America, and if you do too, that’s great.

But this comic arguing that Captain America’s race makes him “perfect” (to quote the title “Why Captain America is Perfect”) is pretty fucked up.

And there’s a reason we like it so much. There’s a reason it’s got nearly 50,000 notes on tumblr. We just love the idea that Captain America’s Aryan-ness, his whiteness, his massive well of privilege, are progressive. We love the idea of unproblematic whiteness. We will twist ourselves in knots to try to explain why he must be white, why he is PERFECT because he is white.

(Let’s not forget that the name of this comic is “Why Captain America is Perfect”)

Diversity in comics is a big time problem. A lot of progressive/ social justice oriented folks are very aware of this issue. Even people who aren’t progressive are aware. And when you’re someone who cares a lot about representation (or feels like you *should* care about representation), and one of your favorite things is superhero narratives… that can feel pretty uncomfortable.  It’s hard to just *enjoy* the medium. You have to ask yourself tough questions about why you love the heroes you love.

Then a comic like this comes along, and BAM. It erases all those tough questions. It puts a bandaid on the problem. Captain America isn’t a problematic figure. He’s a progressive one. And in fact, all of his privileges make him *more* progressive, not less.

It’s the surface explanation that provides the answer we most want – this thing you like is entirely good.

It’s the easy answer. And you can be comfortable again.

***

And I’ll say it again: no one is a bad person for liking Captain America. I like Captain America! I don’t even necessarily have a problem with him being the Big White Superhero, except inasmuch as I have a problem with the fact that *so many* superheroes are white, cis, straight dudes (especially the superheroes who get movies. Where is my goddamn black widow movie?).

I’m just saying, generally, the moment when something with the veneer of social justice makes you feel comfortable with privilege? That’s the moment you should run screaming for the woods.

Sam Wilson, Sam Wilson running, Sam Wilson Come On, Come On, The winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

So let’s debunk this notion of Captain America as “the most perfectly conceived” superhero, shall we?

The implication of the comic above is that Captain America’s creators deliberately made him a white, extra-aryan dude with blond hair and blue eyes so he could be the perfect nazi ideal. This whole thing would be super-ironic and super-progressive, since it would show that Aryans don’t have to be nazis.

His whiteness, his Aryanness were all, in the comic’s worldview, “perfectly conceived” – a deliberate choice on the part of the creators. Which makes it sound like all the creators sat around the table, trying to think of the perfect rejoinder to Naziism. Ethiopian jew? No. Disabled woman? No. Queer, effeminate man? Nope! White man. That’s the one.

Miranda Priestly, Groundbreaking, groundbreaking, devil wears prada, meryl streep

I don’t have a time machine, but trust me on this: the creators of Captain America did not sit down and go “jeez, we’d love to have a black woman as Captain America, but we really need someone who will scare Hitler. It’s gotta be a white blond dude.”

Captain America was not invented five minutes ago. It was the 1940s (1941, to be precise). It was mainstream comics. The creators were not surveying a bevvy of options and picking the Best One. He was a white dude because That Is What You Did.

Shall we be even more precise? Let’s take a look at the mainstream superheroes created in the 1930s and 1940s: Doctor Occult (white man), Superman (white man), Zatara (white man), Namor (white man), Batman (white man), Blue Beatle (white dude), the Human Torch (white man), the Flash (white dude), Hawkman (white dude), Johnny  Thunder (white dude), The Spectre (white man), Hourman (white guy), Captain Marvel (white guy), Black Marvel (a white man with native american powers… wow), Catwoman – hey, a white woman!, Black Canary (white woman), Aquaman (white dude), Mister Terrific (white dude), Superboy (white dude), the Shield (white dude), Fighting Yank (white dude), Green Arrow (white dude).

Oh, hey, look at all those white people. It’s almost like… all…the…superheroes…were…white.

Even better: Shield (white dude), Fighting Yank (white dude) and Captain America were ALL characters created during WWII. They were all patriotic american fighters who fought nazis. And they were all white men.

super yank, yankee, superheroes,

Super Yank!

The Shield

Captain America, Naziism, Diversity in Comics, Representation

Captain America

Wow, it’s almost like Captain America was less the “perfectly conceived” opponent for the Nazis so much as he was literally everyone’s default idea of what an American hero looked like.

To make the point even further: Captain America was created nearly THIRTY YEARS before mainstream comics would even *touch* a black superhero (1966: Black Panther). Let me express some skepticism at the idea that a white Captain America was some kind of grandiose choice, as opposed to the default.

So let’s all SIT THE FUCK DOWN and stop acting like this was a decision made in a vacuum. Let’s all SIT. DOWN. and stop thinking Captain America: The White Dude was a brilliant progressive choice as opposed to what literally everyone working in mainstream comics was doing.

***

Now, let’s address this weird-ass idea that Steve Rogers HAS to be a white aryan, because white aryans are the only people Nazis respect/ are afraid of.

Llama nope gif, Llama nope, Nope, Nope  gif

Okay, first off: why are we catering to what Nazis respect? Because I feel like that never ends well.

“The Nazi ideal of the perfect man is a white man. Sure, having a black man be Captain America would be awesome, (Or hell, a native american/Indian) But the problem of having a POC Captain America fighting Nazis is the fact that the Aryan master race consider […] POCs to be racially inferior to them. A POC Captain America to Third Reich wouldn’t inspire fear, just the belief they could defeat him…not that could ever happen.

But by having a white, blonde, blue-eyed Captain America? The Nazis are doubting themselves. Here is a man going through and destroying your war machines, and he’s the perfect description that Hitler enforced that should be a soldier on their side. White Captain America is a middle-finger to the Nazis.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Distinguished readers, apparently there were no white, blond, blue-eyed aryans fighting against the nazis. At all. Because if there had been – if the people destroying the nazis were white, blond, blue-eyed aryans – the nazis would have been doubting themselves.

Excuse me whilst the many, many, many white aryans in France, England and the United States sob with laughter.

Uh, yeah, a WHOLE LOT of aryans who were the “perfect description that Hitler enforced” opposed the Nazis. And the Nazis were well aware of that fact. For some reason, the idea that Not All Aryans agreed with them did not shake the nazis to their core.

(#NotAllAryans)

Look at the real world for a millisecond. Do the thousands of white anti-racist activists scare the KKK? Do they make the KKK reconsider their motives? Are white supremacists shaken to their core by the fact that lots of white people hate them? Do the thousands of straight people who support queer rights scare the Westboro Baptist Church? Did the confederates lay down their arms when they realized white people opposed slavery?

… no.

Trust me on this, Nazis were not that scared of white people.

Now, you know who Nazis WERE scared of? Jews.

Hitler: “The struggle for world domination will be fought entirely between us, between Germans and Jews.  All else is facade and illusion.  Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States.  Even when we have driven the Jew out of Germany, he remains our world enemy.”

“Unless we expel the Jewish people soon, they will have judaized our people within a very short time.”

Disabled people, who Hitler (and the Nazis) thought were a drain on the economy, and would destroy the Aryan race: “is not only the decline in population which is a cause for serious concern but equally the increasingly evident genetic composition of our people. Whereas the hereditarily healthy families have for the most part adopted a policy of having only one or two children, countless numbers of inferiors and those suffering from hereditary conditions are reproducing unrestrainedly while their sick and asocial offspring burden the community.”

Gay people: “Homosexuality was classed as a “degenerate form of behaviour” in Nazi Germany that threatened the nation’s “disciplined masculinity” (…) ‘The Amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases”defined homosexuals as “asocial” and a threat to the moral purity of the Third Reich.” 

etc.

NON-Aryans were much scarier to the Nazis than Aryans. NON-Aryans – Jews, people of color, homosexuals, disabled people – were the real enemies, the one who could take down the third reich just by existing.

So the idea that Captain America has to be white in order to “intimidate” the Nazis?

LOL, no.

***

Moreover – and there’s no way this can be said enough – these are FICTIONAL nazis were talking about. Captain America is a work. of. fiction. The Nazis could be intimidated by whomever the writers goddamn wanted them to be intimidated by. Unicorns! Kangaroos! Little girls in green dresses! THIS IS FICTION.

One of the other objections to my argument that Captain America/Steve Rogers does not NEED to be white  to be “perfect” was that Captain America must be white, because white americans in the 1940s were bigots.

Steinpratt’s response to this anon was pretty much perfect:

there’s also something else I should’ve pushed back on: This assumption that the most important thing in a story about a SUPER-SOLDIER who PUNCHES HITLER IN THE FACE is that bigotry is accurately represented. Why is it okay to have fantastical stories about a hero, but not okay to imagine that that hero could be black, or gay, or Roma? Why can’t the hero America looks up to be someone OTHER than a white man?

Which isn’t to say that there’s no place for honest examination of bigotry in stories… but that’s not what Steve Rogers being white does. It’s not a commentary on American racism. It’s never really addressed at all. So claiming that Steve Rogers had to be white so people could look up to him is doubly cheap, because you’re at once relying on the fact of American bigotry to justify your boring choices AND refusing to actually display that bigotry on the page. You want it to just be an unspoken assumption. That’s messed up. (my bolded) 

Professor McGonagall Gif, McGonagall BOOM gif, McGonagall, Professor McGonagall

(full disclosure: Steinpratt is the Aforementioned Significant Other)

Heart Eyes Motherfucker gif, heart eyes motherfucker gif

FICTION, people. It’s not written in stone.

***

Why do we cling so hard to the idea that Steve Rogers as Captain America *must* be a white guy? Why is it so important to us that his whiteness be “perfect”? Why do so many socially aware, progressive-type people love that comic?

One part of it is definitely fauxgressive guilt, the relief of being able to enjoy deeply privileged hero who has “progressive” rather than oppressive privilege. White supremacy is a hell of a drug.

And people – some progressive, some not – like to be able to counter discussions of diversity in comics with arguments like “well, but Captain America HAS TO be white.” It’s an easy way to shut down a discussion. And even when you believe in that discussion – even when you believe that diversity in comics is important (as most of the people who messaged me did) – that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to engage in that conversation and all the discomfort and examination it entails.Unproblematic whiteness is a hell of a drug, even for those of us who should know better.

We like the easy solution.

Also? Fighting oppression is always extra special when a white dude does it.

This comic falls right in line with the thinking that white able-bodied men are the most important allies, because they’re the most respected outside social justice spaces.

It falls right in line with lionizing white dudes who “get it” because it’s sooooo much harder for white dudes to get it, because they’re not oppressed.

It falls right in line with the idea that white men are the most *objective* social justice activists, because they have the least stake in activism.

Progressivism is always more special when a white guy is doing it.

And we will fight people who try to point out how problematic that is. We will fight anything that points out we’re just reaffirming the same gendered, racialized hierarchies that social justice is supposed to be fighting *against*. Who cares if we’re saying Captain America is perfect because he’s a white aryan dude? 

Yeah, just say that to yourself a couple times. Doesn’t sound that great, does it?

This comic lets us lionize a white dude FOR BEING WHITE – and lets us feel good about it. Because it’s progressive.
And that’s fucked up.

You want to lionize a hyper-privileged white dude? Fine, but don’t act like his whiteness is some kind of progressive triumph.

You want to like Captain America? Go for it. You can like Captain America. You can think he’s great. I certainly do. And I don’t have any interest in changing Steve Rogers’ race or gender at this point.

But don’t try to justify Captain America’s white male aryanness as some kind of progressive coup. It’s not a progressive coup. It’s not social justice-y. It’s not spitting in the face of naziism. It is the product of white male supremacy, both in the 1940s and today.

Trust me, white men already dominate the superhero roster. They don’t also need us to come up with bullshit reasons to justify their dominance as being “progressive” or “perfect.”

Sam Wilson, Falcon, Shut the Hell Up, Man, Shut the Hell Up, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson Shut the hell up,

 


This is what I was Wearing When I was called a Harlot: 2014 Edition

Last Saturday, I went clinic escorting, as I often do. It was an *interesting* morning, especially since it was the day before Mother’s day. You have not lived until you’ve seen grown men screaming “Mommy, Mommy, I want to wish you a happy mother’s day, but you’re going to kill me.”

Severus Snape newspaper, alan rickman, flipping newspaper down

I’d just finished walking a client in, when one of the regular anti-choicers started yelling at me.

Anti-choicer: “All you care about is money!” (this is because most of the antis are convinced we’re being paid, which LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL) “Plus, you’re a feminist! You hate men!”

Anti-choicer: *starts to walk away*

Anti-choicer: “And look at what you’re wearing!”

Me: *looks down at my clothes*

Me: “What’s wrong with my clothes?”

At this point, I genuinely thought she just didn’t like my fashion sense, which: fair enough. Not everyone grooves to the black-grey theme.

Fellow escort: “Don’t listen to her. You look adorable.”

This, apparently, was too much for the anti-choicer to handle.

Anti-choicer: “You’re dressed like a HARLOT.”

Me: “…”

Me: *bursts out laughing*

Anti-choicer: “Like a SLUT.”

Me: *starts crying with laughter*

Other escorts: “WHAT THE FUCK?”

Me: *walks away before I fall on the ground from laughing*

I COULD NOT MAKE THIS SHIT UP IF I TRIED. 

Now, I will admit, I was not wearing my usual clinic escort garb, so maybe I deserved it. Winter had finally let up in NYC. I didn’t need to wear approximately a billion layers to survive the cold.

Instead, I wore more provocative garb:

STRUMPETTTTTT!

STRUMPETTTTTT!

I know, I’ve shocked you.

MAKING IT WORSE: you have to imagine that instead of the red coat, I’m wearing an oversized white lab-coat that basically hits the bottom of my skirt. That enhances the sluttiness of the outfit even more.

Holy Shit GIF

In retrospect, I don’t even know how the anti-choicers managed to stick around the whole four hours while in the presence of so much harlot-ness.

Let’s get a close-up on the cleavage:

Photo on 5-13-14 at 9.16 PM

IT IS PRETTY CLEAR FROM THIS PICTURE THAT I HAVE BREASTS.

Brooklyn 99, Rosa Diaz, boyle, NOOOOOOOOOO, GIF

 

Brooklyn 99, Rosa Diaz, Boyle, Diaz, NOOOOOOOOO, GIF

 

Rosa Diaz, Brooklyn 99, Boyle, Diaz, NOOOOOOOO, GIF,

SLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT.

***

All jokes aside, it’s never appropriate to call anyone a slut. Ever. Full stop. Whatever they’re wearing (or not wearing!) It’s not appropriate to call someone a harlot either.

…Although I have to admit, until this Saturday, being called a harlot was not something I worried about very much. Except on the off-chance that I went on a wacky time-traveling adventure and was dropped off in Tudor England.

Still, I do think it’s worth it to realize just how extreme this particular anti was. You can see my knees and my collarbone. This is an outfit that would pass muster in most catholic churches. If I’m a slut and a harlot, how does this anti see most women in NYC? For a group of people who claim they “love women,” I’m not seeing much basic respect.

***

I had two more equally hilarious interactions with this anti-choicer.

One: I pass by her a few minutes later, still tickled by my newfound identity as the Harlot of Deathscorts.

Me: “Hey, if I hate all men, why do I dress like a slut? Shouldn’t I be trying to avoid their attentions?”

Her: “You just don’t know any better.”

Me: *chokes on my own spit*
Me: *beats a hasty retreat before I laugh in her face*

Two: One of my fellow escorts comes to see me, cackling.

Escort: “So, the Anti? She came up to us after you left, and said “You know, I really shouldn’t have called her a slut. I’m here to preach the gospel, and not to be judgmental.””

Me: “Oh, wow.”

Escort: “So, we were like:  “Well, why don’t you apologize to her instead of talking to us?” And you know what she said?”

Me: *braces self*

Escort: “She was like “Oh, well, I’m not saying she’s NOT a slut, I’m just saying I shouldn’t have CALLED her one.”

Me: *starts crying of laughter*
Me: *tries to breath, fails*

Escort: “Are you okay? ‘

Me: “Can’t breathe.”
Me: “Too slutty.”
Me: *dies*

Chris, I'm dead, Chris Traegar, Parks and Recreation, Parks and Rec

I am writing from beyond the grave with this important message:

Kids, never let anyone tell you that reproductive justice isn’t fucking hilarious.

***

p.s: In a show of solidarity, every escort decided to wear a skirt next week. Because my fellow escorts are fucking awesome.
We’re hoping for a “trollop” next week. Maybe “strumpet.” Let’s not get our hopes up, though.

p.p.s: I did have another proud moment at the clinic today when I recommended Dragon Age: Origins to the entire pro-life nation (or whatever small segment of pro-life creepers watch videos of escorts) . We were being filmed by the pastor all morning, and at some point, I just decided to make random recommendations to the camera every time I passed him. Because the way I figure, if you’re an anti-choicer sifting through thirty hours of watching bored people waiting around, you might want occasional recommendations! It’s lively and fun!

So I started with Dragon Age: Origins. The pastor did not really appreciate my recommendations (I also recommended Crest as the best dental brand), and asked me two times what the relevance was.

“Seriously?”

 

DRAGON AGE ORIGINS DOES NOT NEED TO BE RELEVANT.

Geeky Harlot of the Deathscort Squad, that’s me!

***

(For a more serious description of my escorting experiences, see this post.)

 


Abusive Relationships and Victim-Blaming in the Legend of Korra

[Content note: flashing gifs, abusive relationships, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, violence against children, dating violence, misogynistic slurs, misogyny, racism]

Remember that time Grey’s Anatomy made physical and emotional abuse seem totally okay, as long as it was aimed towards disabled people?

Well, now comes part 2! (Huzzah). Yes, everyone, it’s time to sit down, gird our loins and talk about that time a show primarily aimed at kids turned physical abuse into a hilarious joke.

I am talking, of course, about the second season of the Legend of Korra, and the relationship between Bolin and Eska.

Now, there’s been a lot of really screwed-up stuff going on in the second season of Legend of Korra. A total lack of female characters, the disappearance of really cool characters like Katara and Lin Bei Fong, the return of the terrible love triangle ( NO ONE CARES), inconsistent characterization, nonsensical sexism, plots that make absolutely no sense etc. etc. etc.

But right up there in the Hall of Horror with the sexism and the bad writing is the way the show turned a physically and emotionally abusive relationship into a “funny” punch-line.

nopetopus gif nope

You may remember Bolin as one of Korra (the protagonist’s) best friends. In the first episode of season 2, Bolin becomes enamoured with Eska, Korra’s cousin. Eska decides Bolin’s cute, and hey presto, they’re dating.

Eska, Bolin, Legend of Korra

Eska on the left, Bolin on the right.

Ah, young love. Sweet, adorable and…

Wait, what’s this?

Eska, Bolin, Korra, gif, Legend of Korra, icebending,

Eska, Bolin, Korra, Legend of Korra, icebending, episode 2

… did Eska just use a wall of ice to physically drag Bolin away from Korra?
Did she seriously just physically prevent her boyfriend from touching one of his best friends?

DID THE SHOW JUST PLAY THAT MOMENT FOR LAUGHS?

Uh, not okay, Korra. What Eska did is the equivalent of physically grabbing and restraining Bolin. That. is. assault. It’s  a pretty major red flag for abuse. 

I wish I could say this moment in episode 2 was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, over the next few episodes, Eska becomes more and more abusive towards Bolin – and the show continues to portray the abuse as a joke.

In fact, given how the show has portrayed the relationship as *hilarious*, you may not even have realized all the gross, abusive shit that’s been happening!

Here’s a (shortened) recap:

A. Eska uses threats of violence and emotional abuse to force Bolin to stay in a relationship with her.

1. When Mako tells Bolin to”tell [Eska] you’re not into her anymore”, Bolin appears terrified, and says “”Oh no, no, no, I don’t think she’d like that.”

2. Then when Bolin takes Mako’s advice and tries to break up with Eska, she threatens to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas. In case you think this is hyperbolic, let’s remember that this woman trapped Bolin in a block of ice when he hugged his  friend.

3. The next time he tries to break up with her, she forces him to accept a marriage proposal and drags him away. The image makes it clear that Bolin is in pain as she pulls him.

Eska and Bolin, abuse, dating violence, domestic abuse, Legend of Korra

4. When Bolin finally manages to get on a boat and escape the southern water tribe, Eska chases after him with on a massive water wave of doom, and it’s pretty clear that she’s prepared to use violence to get him back.
Eska, Waterbending,Bolin, domestic abuse, abuse, Legend of Korra,

B. Eska consistently humiliates Bolin, and enjoys watching him in pain.

1. At the beginning of episode 3, we see Bolin forced to carry Desna and Eska in their cart. He’s very obviously unhappy about it. When Eska makes a joke, she orders Bolin to “laugh at my humerous quip!” and we see him look terrified and laugh.
I feel like I have to make this clear: forcing your boyfriend to pull you in a cart and then laugh at your jokes is pretty fucking gross. And, in most contexts (including this one) pretty abusive.

2. Later in the season, Eska tells Bolin: “Boyfriend! Bow to me before I exit!” Looking, again, terrified, Bolin throws himself on the ground. Eska grins: “You are so sweet when you grovel.”

Bolin, Eska, Legend of Korra, humiliation, abuse

GDSH(#@HGSUDB:OSGKK

HILARIOUS! THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A HILARIOUS MOMENT! AS OPPOSED TO A “HOLY SHIT THIS RELATIONSHIP IS SO FUCKING ABUSIVE” MOMENT!

… sorry. I needed that.

3. When Eska forces Bolin to accept her marriage proposal, she does not even wait for him to say yes before she puts the betrothal necklace on his neck and drags him away, telling him he can “express his joy with tears.” Crying, Bolin says “[The necklace] is really tight”

Bolin, Eska, abuse, legend of korra, Bolin and Eska

And we’re expected to laugh at all of these scenes. We’re expected to laugh at someone being forced into a betrothal. We’re expected to laugh as their partner physically drags them away and they cry in pain. This is Legend of Korra‘s idea of a joke.

[There are, of course, relationships where physical violence and humiliation are okay: consensual BDSM relationships. But what’s happening between Bolin and Eska is pretty clearly nonconsensual]

To recap: Eska (non-consensually) humiliates Bolin and enjoys watching him in pain. She controls his actions and his emotions. He’s not even allowed to talk without asking for Eska’s permission first. And she uses fear and abuse in order to prevent him from leaving the relationship.

Yup! That’s abusive! Almost any of these moments, taken in isolation, would be a red flag for abuse. Together, they’re a  Massive Abuse Warning Siren that screams: “BEWARE: HERE THERE BE REALLY GROSS ABUSE HAPPENING.”

Now, I don’t actually oppose showing abusive relationships in TV shows. Hell, I don’t even oppose showing abusive relationships in children’s TV shows.  What I oppose is showing abusive relationships as lighthearted and funny.

Legend of Korra isn’t trying to make a point about how gross abusive relationships are. They’re trying to make a joke.

I know this because the Avatar Universe (of which Korra is a part) has a history of portraying abusive relationship with nuance and sensitivity. I know what it looks like when an Avatar show portrays abuse with nuance and sensitivity: it looks like Zuko’s relationship with Ozai, his father.
Ozai is a horrific parent. He forces his thirteen-year-old son to duel against him when Zuko speaks out of turn. After Zuko refuses to duel his own father, Ozai burns his son’s face, permanently scarring him, and then banishes him from the Fire Kingdom. Later, he tries to kill Zuko when his son turns against him.

Zuko, Ozai, abusive parent, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Fire Lord, Flashing Gif

Avatar: the Last Airbender never turned Ozai’s actions into comedy. And it never allowed us to forget that Ozai is a terrifying, violent and manipulative parent.

In Legend of Korra, on the other hand, the relationship between Bolin and Eska is a non-stop, unrelenting joke.

****

There are, I suspect, two forces at work in the “hilarity” of the Bolin/Eska relationship: first, the  myth that men can’t be abused (which means that domestic violence against men isn’t “serious”), and second, the “bitches be crazy” corollary (which means that women acting violent against men isn’t “serious” either).

In other words, Eska’s abuse of Bolin is hilarious because she’s a woman abusing a man.

Let’s parse these problems separately.

First, it’s pretty clear that no character in the Korra universe thinks Bolin is being abused. In fact, they blame him for his treatment at Eska’s hands.

When Bolin tells Korra and Mako that Eska threatened to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas, they both shrug it off, and act annoyed that he’s ruining their date. Neither Korra nor Mako – Bolin’s brother –  seems the least bit worried that Eska told Bolin she would kill him if he tried to break up with her, even though they’ve already witnessed her being violent towards Bolin (when Eska traps him a block of ice to prevent him from hugging Korra)

Hey, what’s to worry about, am I right?

Bolin starts to hide in order to avoid Eska. His friend Asami tells him he should “stand up for himself” – and later, when she witnesses Eska ordering Bolin to bow, she says: “Don’t LET her treat you that way.”

Mako, Korra and Asami’s reactions put the blame for Eska’s abusive behavior squarely on Bolin. Bolin should have known better than to date Eska. Bolin should “stand up for himself.” Bolin is LETTING Eska treat him this way. It’s his fault his girlfriend is violent and abusive!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but those guys are the worst friends.

They’re also doing a superb job of reinforcing the idea that abuse just can’t happen to men. In this worldview, no matter how violent or how manipulative a man’s partner is, a man just cannot be abused. Their relationships are always under their own control – they can put an end to them at any time and “stand up for themselves” whenever they want to.

No wonder none of Bolin’s friends take his problems seriously. They know that what’s happening to him isn’t serious at all – after all, he’s a man!

It gets worse. When Eska forces Bolin to accept a marriage proposal, he rejoins his friends, wearing a traditional betrothal necklace.

Korra: “I’m pretty sure the guy is supposed to give the girl the betrothal necklace.”

It’s FUNNY because Eska has forced Bolin to take on a FEMALE role. HAHAHAHA… so gross. . It’s the other side to the “Men can’t be abused” coin: if men are abused, they are like women. They become feminized by their abuse.

And we could get into the misogyny that idea implies, but frankly, we have enough on our plate.

In most of the world – maleness is defined in opposition to victimhood. Men aren’t victims. They’re the aggressors, the winners. They’re strong, in control. Our definition of manhood, therefore, leaves no room for people who are victims, who are used and abused and wounded. After all, if you can’t protect yourself, you’re not a “real” man.

In this twisted logic, Bolin – and other men and boys in similar situations – aren’t experiencing abuse. And if they are, it is either because they choose to stay, or because they aren’t “real” men.

It’s pretty clear that the “joke” of Bolin’s abuse relies on the assumption that  Bolin’s relationship with Eska is totally under his control. If he were only able to stand up for himself, the abuse would just magically go away. It’s also “hilarious” because Bolin’s inability to stand up to Eska shows how incompetent he is as a man (“the guy is supposed to give the GIRL a proposal necklace”)

Moreover, if you take a wide view of the season, you’ll see that Eska isn’t the only woman who physically abuses her partner. For example, when Korra and her boyfriend, Mako, have an argument, Korra earthbends his desk into a wall. Which is pretty fucking threatening, in my opinion.  And if your partner is throwing things while you’re arguing?  Massively abusive.

When Lin Bei Fong, Mako’s boss, walks in the room and notices the torn-up wall and the broken desk, she asks Mako what happened. Mako tells her he broke up with Korra, and Lin smiles: “You got off easy. You should have seen Air Temple Island when Tenzin broke up with me.”

Oh, yeah, hilarious.

In both cases, we have women physically destroying things at their boyfriends. And as someone who has experienced people breaking things at me, I can tell you right now, it’s terrifying. It’s an obvious threat. I’ve been in cars with someone who starts driving really erratically when they get angry at me, and oh god, it does not make you want to make them angry ever again, because I was terrified we were going to drive straight into a tree. Which is exactly the point. It’s behavior that’s supposed to teach you not to go “out of line” again – or you’ll be next.

(As a note, abusers who throw or hit objects in when arguing with you almost always escalate to violence eventually)

All of these moments – Eska’s violence towards Bolin, Korra’s violence towards Mako, and Lin Bei Fong’s violence towards Tenzin – are meant to be comedic. Korra and Lin Bei Fong are both characters we’re supposed to like – I highly doubt the show wants us to read them as abusive, even though that’s exactly what they are, at least in these moments with their partners. It’s supposed to be funny that Lin Bei Fong destroyed Tenzin’s home when he broke up with her.

So what is with this trend of comic portrayals of abusive women?

That’s the second half of the Bolin/Eska joke – the “bitches be crazy” corollary.

This season has had a plethora of the “women are so hysterical and crazy in relationships” trope. Korra’s behavior this season with Mako is a  prime example – he can’t do anything without making her blow up. And that’s an incredibly misogynistic trope to begin with. But it also has really unpleasant consequences when you line it up with abuse, because it makes it seem like Korra, Eska and Lin’s violent behaviors are just “crazy” things women “naturally” do.

Because women, am I right? They’re just “crazy.” And men have to put up with it, because women, am I right?

This narrative transforms abuse from an aberration into something “natural” and comedic.

I think, moreover, that there’s something more than your average “bitches be crazy” trope going on in The Legend of Korra. I think the show is having a  hard time coping with their female protagonist.

You would not thing a strong female protagonist would be a problem for the writers of Korra, given that the previoous series, Avatar,  is full of strong, interesting women:  Katara, the waterbending master, Toph, one of the greatest earthbenders to ever live, Azula, who… I mean, how do you even talk about the powerhouse that is Azula? And Mai, Tai-Lee and Suki, three non-benders who could stand toe-to-toe with any bender and come out on top.

But in Avatar, unlike in Korra,  there was always one male character who was theoretically more powerful than any given woman:  Aang, by virtue of being the Avatar. In Legend of Korra, however, the protagonist is female. Aang is dead and Korra is the new Avatar – the most powerful person in the entire show. Once she’s fully trained, nothing will be able to stand against her. There is no male character more powerful than Korra.

People have… problems with that kind of female power. A whole lot of writers just have no idea how to deal with it, especially in the context of western patriarchy and western-prescribed gender roles (most of the characters of Avatar are POC, and the areas they live in correspond to asian and first nations locations, but the writers of the show are mainly from north america). There aren’t a whole lot of creators with the kind of talent and chutzpah to deal with a world where women and men are on equal footing – and where a woman is the “savior” of the world.

Which is where you get weird stuff like the Korra abuse narrative. The writers are unable to separate the world of Korra from western ideas about gender and patriarchal structures. More specifically, they’re unable to conceive of a world where the strength of women doesn’t come at the expense of the strength of men. They’ve moved beyond the patriarchy by flipping it.

Thus, in Korra, gender equality doesn’t mean that relationships will become healthier and more equitable. No – a gain in power by women must mean a loss in power by men, since we’re still stuck in gender hierarchies. Thus, if women are the “strong” ones – if women are captains of industry (Asami), police chiefs (Lin Bei Fong), Avatars (Korra) and incredibly powerful waterbenders (Eska) – then the men must be the “weak” ones. Thus, we get all the heterosexual relationships where the women are abusive and the men are passive.

Which, I should note, tells you a whole lot about how the writers conceive traditional male-female relationships. And a whole lot about how the writers conceive “strength.” They seem unable to conceive of a woman with stereotypically male attributes – like Korra, who is very physically strong, who acts first and think later, who is competitive and impulsive – without also making her borderline abusive. I don’t know if it’s because the writer’s vision of masculinity is so entwined with strength-as-abuse, or if it’s because they can’t help but see a character like Korra as an aberration, and thus infuse her with “bad” qualities. Whatever it is, it’s disturbing.

It’s also a pretty disturbing message about female strength. Women are only strong and in control, the narrative goes, because men have ceded the place to them. If men *wanted* to be in charge again, they could.

The other explanation for the woman-as-abuser and man-as-passively-accepting-abuse trope in Korra  is the narrative of men being “whipped” by their girlfriends. In a sentence: men allow women to walk all over them because they love/admire/desire the women so much – or because they’re just too lazy/stupid to exercise their male control over the relationship. This brings us straight back to the victim-blaming: Bolin and Mako are abused because they “let” the women abuse them. Moreover, it makes it seem like abuse is the price you pay for a woman’s love. Being in a relationship and having access to women’s bodies is worth the emotional and physical abuse – a storyline that plays directly into the stereotype of men being voracious, mindless, sex-pursuing velociraptors.

(okay, so I made that part about the velociraptors up).

Oh yeah. There’s a whole shitload of toxic stuff wrapped up in the “joke” of Eska abusing Bolin.

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Let’s be clear, finally, and explain exactly why the victim-blaming, misogyny and toxic masculinity at the root of the “comedy” of abuse is so disturbing:

Because abuse is a thing that happens in the real world.

And abuse is a thing that happens – in spite of the myths –  to men. Often it happens to them exactly how it happened to Bolin. And often, people will react exactly the way Bolin’s friends reacted to him – with laughter, with victim-blaming, with a complete lack of support.

According to the latest study by the CDC, approximately one in seven men have experienced some form of domestic violence (compared to one in four women). 1.4% of men have been raped, while 6% have experienced some form of sexual coercion. One in nineteen men have been stalked. One in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

Abuse happens to men. Abuse happens to men a lot. And just as  it’s socially unacceptable for women to talk about their experiences with rape, sexual violence, harassment and domestic violence, it’s also socially unacceptable for men to admit to being the victims of rape, harassment and domestic violence. Because we see those stories as funny.

Yes, men are threatened, stalked, hurt and emotionally manipulated, just as Bolin was on the show. It’s not funny when it happens to them. And it’s not funny when it happened to Bolin.

The abuse-as-comedy trope is particularly harmful because Korra is aimed at children and young adults. And guess who is most at risk of abuse?

That’s right! Kids.

More than one in four male victims of rape experience their first rape when they are ten years or younger. Of the men who have experienced stalking, 1/3 have been stalked before the age of 25. 53% of male victims of domestic violence experience their first incident before the age of 21.
Of the men who have experienced rape, stalking or physical abuse by an intimate partner, 15% had their first experience when they were between the ages of 11 and 17. 38.6% of them had their first experience between the ages of 18 to 24.

So when you turn abuse into a joke in a kid’s show, you’re basically teaching the most vulnerable male demographic (children and young adults) that abuse is funny, not serious, and to be expected in  romantic relationships. Right as they’re entering their first dating years – and the years where they’re most likely to experience abuse.

Great job, guys. No, seriously.

Here’s another important fact: Bolin is a man of color (as are Mako, Tenzin, and every other male character on Korra). Which is great! But dismissing the abuse of men of color as “funny” carries particularly damaging connotations, since men of color are much more likely to experience rape, stalking and domestic violence than white men. Approximately 1/5 of white men reported experiencing sexual violence, rape or domestic violence. In comparison, one third of multiracial men, one fourth of latino men, forty percent of black men and 43.5% of american native and alaskan native men reported experiencing rape, physical violence and/or stalking in their lifetimes.

To put it bluntly:  men of color are more likely to experience rape, sexual violence and/or stalking. So turning a man of color’s abuse into a joke? Is really not okay.

(this is not to say that 20% of white men experiencing abuse is in *any* way okay – it’s just that men of color experience higher rates of abuse)

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Is this the lesson we want to teach the young audience of Korra? For that matter, is this the lesson we want to teach the older audience of Korra? That abuse is acceptable? That abuse is funny? That abuse is the victim’s fault? That men can’t be abused? That abuse is to be expected in a romantic relationship? That abuse is a fair trade for romance, love and sex? That men should fear female strength because it leads to emotional and domestic abuse?

What a toxic message.

And what a disappointing narrative from Korra, a show that follows in the footsteps of the wonderfully progressive Avatar: the Last Airbender, where abuse was treated seriously, and gender hierarchies were ignored in favor of good storytelling.

Sure, it’s just a show. But if the writers of Korra didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of treating abuse with nuance and sensitivity, they shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Because it’s not “just” abuse, not when it’s happening to one in seven men.

Since I started writing this post, the show has gotten, if possible, worse on abuse. Bolin has turned from abuse-victim into rape-culture perpetrator, when he kissed his co-star, Ginger, against her will, and then told her “I think you liked it too.”Ginger eventually goes out with Bolin, because he’s rich and famous – and women don’t mind sexual assault as long as it comes from a rich and famous dude! This, again, is played for laughs, because if there’s anything funnier than abuse, it’s sexual violence.
Then Eska and Bolin reunite, and it’s clear that Bolin still harbors feelings for Eska. Which I don’t have a problem with in and of itself (often, abuse victims remain emotionally attached to their abusers). But since the show keeps pretending Eska hasn’t abused Bolin, I have no reason to believe they’ll treat the romantic subplot with any kind of nuance or sensitivity. The writers have turned what used to be a joke subplot into an actual romantic subplot. With both narratives, they’ve ignored Eska’s abusive behavior.

So since the show won’t say it, let me, once again, emphatically explain: What Eska did to Bolin is abuse. It is physical and emotional abuse. What Korra, Mako and Asami did to Bolin is victim-blaming.

And none of it is fucking funny.

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Commenting guidelines:

1. Do not try to explain that Eska’s behavior is not abusive. It is.
2. Do not victim-blame Bolin (or any other victim of domestic violence)
3. Please don’t start blaming abuse on misandry.
If you engage in any of these three activities, I may just delete your comment, because LOL, I am not playing the “but physically dragging people around isn’t ABUSE” game.

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Resources:

1. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Executive Summary
2. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Full Report
3. Domestic violence red flags: one, two, three, four, five (includes red flags specific to men experiencing domestic violence)
4. One in Six: A group that helps male survivors of child sexual abuse
5. Male Survivor: Group for male survivors of abuse

Hotlines:

1. Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women: 1-888-7HELPLINE
2. Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project: 1-800-832-1901
3. National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 1-866-331-9474
4. National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
5. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233